How to see a million things in one day – Seoul edition

This post will contain 100% less Seoul puns than the previous post.

After getting to bed around 2:30AM the night before Shana and I decided sleeping in was a necessary component of the days agenda.

Cool screen at the big palace

Cool screen at the big palace

We had a free walking tour penciled in at 10:45 that started with Seoul City Hall. We arrived about 10 minutes early and unlike Prague where there were crowds of people offering walking tours, tour guides and answering questions there wasn’t a Seoul soul to be found (sorry, I promised). We got breakfast at a very expensive cafe because it was adjacent to the meeting place and we could see if anyone showed up. About five minutes past the deadline the sky cracked and opened up a deluge of steaming rain. So much for our walking tour, it appeared to be double cancelled by the guide not showing up and the rain.

Seoul City Hall

Seoul City Hall

The rain lasted about 10 minutes and we decided to make our own walking tour starting with Seoul City Hall. There is large plaza in front of city hall. On this day there also happened to be a large stage erected that featured what I imagine to be popular Korean musical acts. We watched a couple groups go through dress rehearsal and took a quick tour of the city hall building itself which is actually shaped like a giant wave.

Across from city hall is Deoksugung also known as Gyeongun-gung. This is a “small palace” that contains a massive garden, the National Museum of Art and a complex of 10 buildings or so that provided temporary housing while the Joseon rulers were working on the other palaces around Seoul. Despite the epic heat we toured the grounds but were not able to go into the art museum as it was closed to the public while we were there.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Next we walked down the main boulevard that connects City Hall Plaza to Gyeongbokgung which is the largest of the five palaces in Seoul built by the Joseon dynasty. The main street has two large statues on its median and often hosts special events. Only about 40% of the palace is still standing or has been reconstructed after numerous destructions due to invasion. Deoksugung is an out house compared to the size of Gyeongbokgung. The place is massive with gardens, gates, buildings and former residences stretching in all directions. It is impossible to really get a grasp for how big it really is even walking around it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After an extensive tour of Gyeongbokgung we headed to Seodaemun Prison History Hall. I struggled for a long time to come up with the right way to describe this museum. Its part Alcatraz because you are touring a prison including cell blocks, exercise yard and even the kitchen. It’s part independence museum because the museum focuses on the time it was used by the Japanese as a colonial prison for Korean independence activists. Finally its part Tower of London with a thorough demonstration of some of the torture techniques the Japanese used on their Korean prisoners. Somber is too a light of a word to describe this place. From a Western point of view we had very little exposure to this region’s history and this became a huge eye opener for us. While the museum is obviously one sided, I’m not sure there could be a different side to be on when you see a table designed for sticking needles underneath prisoners’ fingernails.IMG_6038

Feeling brutally educated about some of Korea’s more recent history we trekked down into the Insa-dong neighborhood which is filled with traditional craft stores, restaurants and sidewalk vendors. We walked up and down the main street looking at tea shops, tourists and stopping at a few sidewalk carts to get some street food. Insadong has been recently renovated and is becoming more popular with locals. It is still somewhere between Korean street market and tourist trap.

To really get our fill of tourist traps we then hopped on the subway to get to Itaewon. Itaewon is adjacent to the Yongsan garrison of the US military stationed in South Korea. Because of Itaewon’s proximity it has also developed an incredibly international flavor including but not limited to, burgers, craft beer, halal cuisine, tailor made suits, tacos, greek food, a delicatessen, and numerous shops filled with knock-off designer items. Itaewon is also home to a massive mosque, the red light district, (Hooker Hill) and an underground gay community. We had been desperate for shwarma and stopped at the first place we saw that served it. Despite the fact they used Mexican tortillas for their wraps instead of pita or lavash it was still an excellent departure from our Asian diets. After that we stopped at a local tap house to try their mediocre but expensive beers. Since a large beer in Korea is typically 3000 won anything over 4 or 5 thousand won is starting to get ridiculous.IMG_1621

With evening fast approaching, we took a train down to Seobinggo. While there is nothing particularly special about this neighborhood, the bridge that connects Seobinggo to Banpo-dong is known as the ‘Moonlight Rainbow Fountain.’ Every night at 8PM the bridge puts on a fountain and light show that can be seen from parks on either side of the river. The picture on the Wikipedia page shows a beautiful spectacle. This is false as you can see from my picture below. There is no amount on insect repellent that will keep you from being eaten alive while you are underwhelmed at just how unimpressive this really is. On top of all that, there are ZERO signs indicating where to go to watch the show once you are down along the river. The picture from Wikipedia shows the fountain being on both sides of the bridge. This is also not the case for the time being. Needless to say we had stationed ourselves on the wrong side of the bridge and had to hoof it another half mile or so to see the end of the show. This one isn’t worth the trouble. I’m sure you could pay a fortune to get on a river cruise and watch the show from the water if you hate money.

Exhausted after the exceptional amount of walking we had done, we headed back to the Myeong-dong neighborhood to grab a bite to eat and get back to our hotel. When we surfaced from the Myeong-dong subway station we found an immensely crowded night market going on and our curiosity got the better of us. In the face of debilitating hunger we window shopped for the better part of an hour before succumbing to an offer for Korea BBQ. Makgeolli and spicy beef were on the menu as we spent an hour or so mixing and matching all the different condiments they set out on the table.

Don't bother.

Don’t bother.

Full, exhausted and experienced we headed off to bed for a KTX ride the next day.

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How to do a million things in one day – Kyoto Edition (Rainy Style)

Traveling in a foreign country when you live in said foreign country is great! I have never experienced this before, but it is definitely the best way to travel. Having a prior understanding of the language, customs, culture, food, transportation, and being able to carry wifi on your person takes the stress out of being somewhere totally new. Plus you get this fantastic rush from being able to help out real “tourists.” So I may be biased when I say that Kyoto is an amazing place to travel, but here’s what we were able to accomplish on day two; hopefully you will find yourself here someday as well and can tell me how it went.

Lily pond

Lily pond

The forecast was guaranteed rain all day, so umbrellas in hand we ate conbini (the word Japanese use for convenience store) breakfast and hopped on the bus to Arashiyama in the western edge of Kyoto. For $12 you can buy an all-day subway and bus pass for unlimited rides, this is a must. Pays for itself after four or five rides, or you can just sit on the bus and enjoy the air conditioning. After about forty minutes, we arrived at the aptly name Storm Mountain in the midst of heavy rain. The only good thing about the rain in summer is the fact that it makes the air feel slightly cooler, although it is still 85 degrees with 90% humidity, so you are wet from the rain and wet from your own sweat. Yum…don’t come to Japan in the “summer,” if you can avoid it. If you can’t, enjoy being wet. But seriously, don’t  come in the summer.

Zen pond at Tenryu-ji

Zen pond at Tenryu-ji

Despite all this, the Tenryu-ji temple and it’s gardens were beautiful. From there, you can head straight into the famous Bamboo Path, a short walk lined by a thicket of tall bamboo. Despite being in the shade its actually hotter underneath the bamboo.

The Hozu River

The Hozu River

Next, we enjoyed the Kameyama Park and the Hozu River Walk, which takes you back to the bridge across the Hozu River. From here, you can cross and hike a really, really long path completely uphill to see the Iwatayama Monkey Park. 114 Macaque monkeys roam free, and on a clear day you get a great view of Kyoto. While this is a bit of a novelty, it’s quite lovely and sitting next to dozens of monkeys is an interesting experience.

it must be comfortable

it must be comfortable

Still raining, we grabbed a bus headed for Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It is indeed very golden, and although the rain just wouldn’t let up, we were able to snap a few nice photos. It is definitely a stunning site, and I can only imagine how radiant it would look with sunlight reflecting off it’s golden exterior. Not much to do other than gaze upon its majesty, but it is absolutely worth the price of admission. Since we weren’t yet templed-out, we headed to central Kyoto to visit Nijo Castle, a stunning representation of shogunate glory.

Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji

Finally, the rain stopped, as if it understood how important it was to see this incredible structure. We were thrilled, not only for this good turn of luck, but because in all our time in Japan so far we had yet to actually step foot in a castle. The Imperial Castle in Tokyo is not open to the public save for twice a year, and Sendai Castle no longer exists. You can visit the “Castle Site” where it used to sit, but an empty expanse of land touted as a famous destination is a giant let down. We were not at all let down by Nijo-jo.

Moated.

Moated.

There are two palaces within Nijo Castle; one, Ninomaru, is open to the public and contains amazing examples of Japanese architecture and wall murals. You must enter the palace before the natural light is lost because nothing is artificially lit, so as to preserve the precious artifacts. You take off your shoes and walk the halls of the shogun palace, noticing the squeaking of the wooden boards, especially designed that way to alert the residents to the sound of trespassing footsteps. After touring room upon gorgeous room, we headed out into the gardens, which are equally breathtaking. Although the castle is situated among the busy streets of Kyoto, you can hear nothing of the outside world behind its walls, only the sound of cicadas buzzing like electricity. Thoroughly awed, we headed east in central Kyoto to find the Kinshi Masumune Sake Museum & Tasting.

Macro

Macro

Sake breweries in Kyoto have almost equally forbidding exteriors as the castles. Usually you only know they contain a sake brewery when you see a large, brown ball of cedar leaves hanging discretely over the entrance. For this particular brewery, no entrance sign or hours of operation were posted. We basically opened a sliding door, stuck our heads in and asked for sake in very broken Japanese. While they did not appear to be open for business, the gentleman there let us come in and tour the grounds, and also gave us a brief tasting of their three best nihon-shu and one ume-shu. This private tasting only wetted our appetite for sake, so we headed to North Gion and the Izakaya area to find some sashimi to eat with more sake.IMG_1440 Luckily, you really can’t choose a bad sushi restaurant in Japan. We choose one on a side street and ordered the chef’s sashimi recommendation with a small bottle of Junmai-ginsho. Another great thing about Kyoto is the prevalence of tourists. Normally, tourists are annoying, but since we can go weeks without seeing another non-Japanese person in Tohoku, foreigners are actually friendly faces. During dinner, we met a lovely couple visiting from Britain who took our tips about which sake to order and ended up staying to drink sake with us for a couple hours. Hopefully we can look up Baz and Pinda if we decide to visit Cambridgeshire. After parting ways, we headed north to Ponto-cho, the nighlife “alley” that some people consider the seedy side of Japan. Honestly, I haven’t experienced anything in Japan I would call truly seedy, and I found Ponto-cho to be delightfully humming with energy and charm. Despite that it was Monday and a little quiet, we decided to create our own Japanese bar challenge. IMG_1462Most of the bars and restaurants here are layered between many floors of one building. So we started at the bar on the basement level and worked our way up to the bar on the top. Luckily the building we choose only had three floors. The first bar was a Jamaican-style establishment named Rub A Dub, where we had a couple decent mojitos and got our fill of Bob Marley. Next was Bar Moon Walk, an anime-themed bar with anime-related paraphernalia, and they made a nice tiny Cosmo martini. Most bars charge you a seat fee just to sit down in their establishment, an odd practice to enforce when your bar is totally empty. However, this bar made it up to you by charging only $2 for any drink, so obviously we had three rounds. Finally we trekked up to the top story, a non-descript Japanese style bar that was completely empty. The TVs in the bar were set up for karaoke, but were stuck in a preview loop that played 20-second snippets of only Britney Spears videos. After developing a rapport with the extremely bored staff, we got them to do karaoke with us. They sang Japanese songs for us, and I sang something by the Beatles, of which I have little recollection of, but I’m willing to bet it sounded pretty awful. The staff at Sakura were great sports nonetheless.

we actually did two songs, this one was, "My Sharona."

we actually did two songs, this one was, “My Sharona.”

We stumbled out around 1am, realizing none of the buses would be running anymore, so we hopped in a taxi for the first time in our four months living in Japan. It is quite a testament to the Japanese transportation system that we could avoid cabs for so long. The meter starts at $6, and we ended up with a tab of $7.50, so you can see that taxis in Japan are not the ideal way to get around.

Once back at our guest home, I proceeded to devour left-over o-nigiri from breakfast. I have no recollection of what was inside, but I’m sure it was delicious. There is something oddly comforting about washing down a night of sake with late night rice balls. I may not have needed to come all the way to Japan to experience this, but it sure feels right when you’re here.

So there you have it; a million experiences in one day. No wonder I’m addicted to traveling.

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How to do a million things in one day – Tokyo Edition

Konichiwa! So we knew given our short timeline in just getting to Japan that our opportunities to explore would be limited. We had one full day in Tokyo to explore and we made the most of it.

First we took the train in from the Narita Airport to central Tokyo to see the Edo Period Imperial Palace. As it turns out, most of it was closed although neither of us could figure out why because all the signs were in Japanese. We did walk through the palace’s East Garden though and then caught a train to the Shinjuku district. We literally (cue reggae music) walked down to electric avenue.

Tokyo subway map

Tokyo subway map

Shinjuku is known for its electronics stores and arcades and has earned the name electric walk or avenue. From there we went to the TMGB or Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Sounds about as exciting as a tax audit but it was actually really cool. The TMGB has two observatory lounges on the 45th floor, one in the North tower and one in the South tower, and its free. My favorite price. We got a good view of Tokyo and then caught a train a couple stops away to the Meiji Shrine.

The Meiji shrine is a massive park that is frequented by travelers, shinto followers, wedding guests and tourists. For an in depth write up of Meiji shrine, checkout introvertjapan. Following the JR train tracks for about a 15 min walk from Meiji directly south put us right smack in the center of Shibuya. Shibuya crossing is that famous intersection that is always seen in time-lapse videos. We found a nice seat at Starbucks and watched the crowd for a while before checking out a department store since Shibuya is the center of cutting edge fashion culture in Tokyo.

This man is playing a table.

This man is playing a table.

Another venture in to the Tokyo subway system put us in Roppongi which is the home of Tokyo’s best nightlife, the red light district, and one of the wealthiest areas of Tokyo. Roppongi is also a huge artistic center in Tokyo and there were several exhibitions going on in the Tokyo Midtown. One exhibit was a giant bounce house for children shaped like a Hefty trash bag. Another “art” installation involved people wandering aimlessly on a small lawn playing brass instruments (poorly) and they were being followed around by other people carrying around Japanese lanterns on the end of long poles. There was also a guy playing a table as a musical instrument. Not like drumming on it… like blowing into as if it were a tuba. Tokyo Midtown is also a very large mall that is connected to Konami and Fujifilm headquarters and has a lot of very high end boutiques, restaurants and even a 24hr grocery store called Pecce. Pecce had samples like Costco. Pecce’s samples were better.

Our final stop of the day put us in Ebisu which isn’t really a tourist destination but it is where local 9-5’ers go after work to get dinner. There are no signs in English. Most of the restaurants specialize in one type of dish and this all they serve. One restaurant might serve only udon noodle soup but it wont even be all kinds of udon. Instead it will be beef udon with two flavor options and that is it. We went to a local’s yakitori restaurant which I cannot name because everything on the outside of the building was in Japanese. (I have since found out that the name of the restaurant was Tagosaku). Thankfully they actually had a menu with some rough translations on it. We had skewers of pork heart, liver, and temple (which I’m pretty sure was pork cheek) as well as chicken gizzard, thigh and “meatball.” It was absolutely fantastic. I also tried a special drink called “hirosu” which has some dubious ingredients, “Soju, Soda Water, Ice, and Chinese Medicine.”

From there we had a ended up having a 2 hour train/subway ride back to Narita because it is no where even close to actually being in Tokyo. All in all though a pretty good day.

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How to do see a million things in one day – London edition

Buckingham Palace – St. Paul’s Cathedral – British National Library – The British Museum – The Tower of London – London Bridge – The Globe – Picadilly Circus – Top Hat:The Musical

Off into the crisp early morning of air of London town we went. A short walk from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace and God Save the Queen! Buckingham is not what I expected it to be. Maybe the British are more frugal. The Hofburg, Versailles, and Prague Castle are all substantially larger than Buckingham. Buckingham is still beautiful. It would have reminded me of Luxembourg gardens in Paris if there had been a gravel path and French people laying in the sun while having a picnic. Alas it was far too cold in the early morning autumn of London for a picnic.

Buckingham

Buckingham

After snapping a couple pictures of Buckingham Palace because it wasn’t open that early in the morning we went off for a walk through Hyde Park. Or at least, that was our intention. As it turns out that was a bit of a hike and we hopped on the Underground to St. Paul’s Cathedral instead.

I would like to take a moment to talk about London and my sense of direction. There are very few places in the world where I feel lost. In Prague, Vienna, Athens, and Venice I knew exactly where I was going at all times with only a few glances at the map and my excellent sense of direction. London was a different story. The Tube stations are so large that even though there are maps in English I would find myself walking out of the station and being completely turned around. Luckily it was Shana’s third visit to London and she mostly knew where she was going.

I bring this up because despite St. Paul’s immense size it is rather hard to locate (if you’re not from England). Eventually we found the main entrance and looked at the price sheet. It was 30GBS to enter St. Paul’s or in real money, that is $60ish dollars US. We felt that was a bit exorbitant so we passed on yet another church and hopped back on the Tube to The British National Library.

British National Library

British National Library

Why visit a library? Isn’t it just a bunch of books? Why yes, that’s exactly what it is but these are not just any books. The British National Library houses one of the world’s greatest exhibitions on books of antiquity. There are original hand penned copies of Shakespeare, an original Guttenberg bible, ancient Muslim texts, scrolls of Japanese calligraphy from feudal Japan, Jane Austen’s writing desk and even hand written Beatles’ lyrics on the back of an envelope. It is an awesome collection. There are really old science books, maps, hand-written music by famous composers and notable books from British history. This was also Shana’s third visit to the British National Library so she spent the entire time in front of Jane Austen’s desk.

All those illuminated manuscripts really whet my appetite for some archaeology exhibits. You could say I was… Jones’n… Tip your waitress folks. The good Doctor Jones and the beautiful female lead dashed off to the British Museum (WHICH IS FREE). The audio guide is rather expensive though. I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine; which was to see the Rosetta Stone. Ever since I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and studied ancient Egypt in 6th grade I have been deeply fascinated by Egyptian stuff and had wanted to see the British Museum’s collection of Egyptian artifacts. Seeing the Rosetta Stone helped bring out that child like wonder like when I had visited the Field Museum in Chicago, The Smithsonian in Washington D.C. or the Monterey Bay Aquarium for the first time. Despite being pressed for time I made a desperate push to see everything in the museum. I failed. It’s too big. Ba baba BAAAAA ba babaaaaa. Maybe there will be a sequel visit. We stopped for a short take away lunch and hopped back on the London Underground on our way to the Tower of London!

Billy Beefeater

Billy Beefeater

The Tower of London is a bit expensive so to get the most out of your visit make sure you take the guided tour from one of the Beefeaters that “guard” the castle grounds. These are former military men that now actually live at the castle and guide the crowds through with stories and insight. The tour takes off about every 30 min. The tour lasts about 45 min and then you are free to roam the castle on your own time. Trust me on this. You will want to get the tour. First of all there is a lot insight and great stories they tell about the castle to help clear up common misconceptions about its history. Second of all, they are absolutely hilarious. It was an international roast of epic proportions. Here’s a little taste courtesy of youtube. You can even follow them on twitter where they often post the dumbest question they were asked that day.

After the tour we wandered through the main castle to see the torture exhibits, the famous suits of armor, collections of swords and other knight paraphernalia. Henry VII thought very highly of himself judging by the codpiece on his armor.

One of the main reasons people come to the Tower of London is that they house the crown jewels of the United Kingdom. To see the crown jewels you have to walk into a very large safe and then get on a moving sidewalk where you cannot linger to really stare at the jewels as they are incredibly valuable. One of them is called, “The Mountain of Light,” it is a diamond about the size of Shaquille O’Neal’s fist. The guide earlier mentioned to all the women, “If you want your men to feel inadequate, go see King Henry’s Armor, if you want to feel bad about your wedding ring, go see the crown jewels.” Good thing Shana doesn’t like diamonds.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

We wrapped up our visit to the Tower of London and headed across the Thames to the Globe. The only building in London with a thatched roof. It also just happens to be a complete replica of the original Globe where Shakespeare was performed in the mid to late 16th century. Alas, woe hath fallen upon mine eyes, forsooth we were’t able to peer into the performers’ hallowed ground, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet O’er n’ out. It was closed when we got there. However, we did get a picture of the outside and Shana had already been inside during a previous trip to London.

Back onto the subway we went and headed back to the Leicester Square and the TKTS booth to buy tickets for Top Hat: The Musical. We grabbed some dinner at a local pub near the theatre in the West End, aptly named, “The Globe,” and then enjoyed a wonderful performance of the adapted film. They sang, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and of course, “Top Hat, White Tie & Tails.” The main part was played by Fred Astaire in the movie and the man who played him on stage was fantastic. He had Astaire’s mannerisms and singing style down. He even kind of looked like Astaire. A great way to cap off our time in London Town.

Sadly this was our final night on the road. Tomorrow we head home.

 

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Prague on foot

Astronomical Clock – Walking Tour/History Lesson Old Town & Jewish Quarter to Wenceslas Square – Climbing the Clock Tower – Failed attempt to attend a hockey game – Beer tasting

After a long night we slept in and ventured into Old Town Square just before 11 to catch up with a free walking tour.

Prague is probably the most walkable city in Europe. Most everything that a tourist would want to see is very close together and in pedestrian friendly zones. There is an underground train system as well as a complex network of trams but for the most part the next thing on the list is probably within a few hundred feet.

Astro Clock

Astro Clock

Lots of small tour companies offer free walking tours of the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter so we took advantage of a free tour from the same company that sold us our beer tasting and pub crawl the previous night. Our tour guide was an irishman named Luke who was going to be married soon to a Czech woman and had moved to Prague permanently. We arrived several minutes before eleven in the morning to a very large crowd of people gathered around the “Astronomical Clock” which is at the center of the Old Town Square.  Every hour the clock puts on a little show. By show I mean its a giant cuckoo clock but instead of a bird its all 12 of the apostles come out and wave at you as you watch the clock strike the hour. Pretty underwhelming.

After that we started our tour and followed our guide around the Old Town Square out to a world renown concert house then through the old Jewish quarter. The Jewish Quarter was once a ghetto and the least desirable place in Prague to live. After a great flood much of the architecture was rebuilt and is now one of the nicest places in Prague. Narrow streets and pristine art nouveau architecture surround the tourists as they walk in between the shops and the tourist sites in the area. After the Jewish quarter we headed to Republic Square where the Hybernia Theatre, Powder Gate and the Municipal House are all located. The Powder gate is the ceremonial entrance to the old city where the King of Bohemia would start his coronation procession through the city.

From there we went to the border of the Old Town (Stare Mesto) and Nove Mesto (New Town).  Stopping briefly at a memorial statue for Franz Kafka who despite being Czech had only had his work translated in to Czech language in the early nineties.  We stopped in Wenceslas Square which was the sight of many events of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution.  Five hundred thousand Czech’s filled the square and began waving their keys in peaceful protest.  No blood was shed as the Czech’s were allowed to freely elect a new government.

Kafka

Kafka

We walked on to Mozart’s favorite concert house which was the sight of many of his premiers and ended the tour. I had planned after this tour to look into heading out in the Prague suburbs to one of their three hockey arenas (hockey is the national sport of the Czech republic). However there is not a singular source for tickets like there are for NHL games and no one could seem to give me a straight answer as to which arena was actually hosting the game since it was a preseason game. We scrapped that idea and climbed the clock tower in Old Town Square to get some nice views of Prague before we wandered back towards our hotel for the afternoon.

On our way back we stopped at the only place we encountered in either Austria or the Czech Republic that has developed the “beer flight.” This restuarant was called The Beer “Museum” of Prague. I put the word museum in sarcastic-quotes because it was really just a restaurant that had roughly 30 Czech beers on tap which was about 30 times more than any other restaurant in Prague. Typically most restaurants carry one or two Czech style beers and some bottled imports. Corona is a luxury beer in Prague. The Beer Museum for about ten dollars gave us two flights of totally different microbrews from around the Czech Republic. Several of them were fantastic and I kept the receipts so I would be able to say what they were when I got back!

Tomorrow we would set out for another day trip to a small Czech mining community called Kutna Hora with another tour guide…

 

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How to do a million things in one day – Vienna

St. Augustine’s Cathedral – Austrian National Library – Hofburg Palace Plaza – Volksgarden – Austrian Parliament – Rathaus – Vienna Film Festival – Burg National Theatre – Hapsburg Silver Collection & State Rooms – The Albertina Museum of Fine Art – The Austrian Theatre Museum – Prater – Schweizerhaus Biergarten

We were a bit worried when we realized that we would be in Vienna primarily on a Sunday and a Monday. Generally this is the kiss of death for your sight-seeing plans in Europe as everything is usually closed, but luckily Vienna gets enough tourism to know that it’s better off keeping things open. And as it was Sunday, a lot of the churches have extended music programs before mass, so you can hop in and get a free concert.   We decided to try this at St. Augustine’s Chapel, which was the Catholic church of the Hapsburg’s palace in Vienna and where the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elizabeth “Sisi” were married. It is not a particularly grand church compared with St. Mark’s in Venice or even St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, but it had a certain majesty about it as it filled with locals ready for worship and reverberated with the orchestral overture. We waited until mass started and ducked out into the courtyard of the Hapsburg’s Spanish riding school where it was becoming a beautiful sunny afternoon.

Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace

Before going straight into the Imperial Apartments of the palace, we took advantage of the weather and made a full tour of the Hapsburg’s grounds. Going through the Volksgarten, we passed by Parliament and headed to the city hall, called Rathaus. We were drawn in by the sound of live jazz, and found a huge projection screen set up in front of the Rathaus where we learned it was the last day of the Vienna Film Festival. The courtyard was filled with every type of food stand imaginable and a jazz band was playing “Satin Doll” on a stage in the center. Since we were ready for lunch we grabbed a couple plates and made our way to the Austrian beer booth.

While no one in Europe has adopted the “flight” or “sampler” concept of our bars back home, the woman helping us let Andrew try a couple different brews before buying. She spoke English very well and told us about the Ottakringer Brewery and the famous beer gardens of Vienna. I had a Radler Citrus beer, which is a combination of light beer and lemonade, surprisingly refreshing (although our bar maid scoffed at its froufrou-ness), “If you want to drink beer, drink beer.  If you want to drink lemonade, drink lemonade.”

Moving on from lunch we enjoyed a view of the National Burg Theater and jumped on a “ring tram” back to the start of the palace for a tour through the Hapsburgs’ kitchen and dining wares and the personal apartments of Franz Joseph and Sisi. As we had already seen Sisi’s rooms in Venice, some of it looked familiar but the scale and grandness of the palace still puts everything else to shame. The dining china, silver and gold alone filled twenty rooms and a scale model of the Hapsburg grounds made you realize how truly massive and impressive the palace was and remains.

Steps of the Albertina

Steps of the Albertina

From here we went next door to the Albertina Museum which houses some fantastic exhibits as well as permanent collections including Monet, Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. After a couple hours we walked next door to the small Museum of Theater that had an interesting installment about the rise and effect of the operetta, but was unfortunately mostly in German so we read what we could and moved on. You could probably spend over a week in Vienna seeing every museum, there are so many and so close together, but we were museum-ed out for the day so we hopped on the underground and made our way to the Prater area for dinner.

Prater, while home to the “famous” beer garden Schweizerhaus, is also home to a permanent fairground for children with every kind of amusement ride imaginable. After getting a little lost amidst the roller coasters and cotton candy, we found the huge beer garden and nabbed a table outside. I had another lemonade beer while Andrew enjoyed the “house” beer (which was actually the Czech Budvar) which the bartenders expertly poured with a head of foam at least five inches high, rising above the lip like swirls of whipped cream.

We shared our first wiener schnitzel with pickled potatoes, cucumbers and cabbage and enjoyed people watching among the locals, tourists and many dogs that populated the patio. While content enough to withstand your presence, the Viennese people do not seem interested in chatting up visitors, probably due to the constant barrage of daily tourists the general lack of English skills from people who don’t have direct interactions with tourists. Despite having no one to talk to besides ourselves, we enjoyed our beers and headed home for some rest before attempting to take on two more palaces the next day…

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The Two Honeymooners of Verona

Venice Santa Lucia – Venecia Santa Maria di Nazareth – Verano Puerto Nuevo – Piazza Bra – Verona Coliseum – Casa di Guillietta – Piazza del Erbe – Piazza dei Signore – Santa Maria Antica – Santa Anastasia – Duomo di Verona – Adige River Walk – Castlevecchio – Verano Puerta Palia – Venice Santa Lucia – Vienna Westbahnhof

After our jam-packed day in Venice we decided we had done enough in the city of canals and would explore an Italian city that neither of us had seen before: Verona. We were also covered in mosquito bites and figured Verona had less standing water so we went to the train station and bought tickets for a day trip. After some confusion about the tracks, we finally ended up on the right train to Verona at noon. That gave us about 6 hours to walk around the city before we had to be back in Venice for our overnight train to Vienna

Piazza Bra

Piazza Bra

As soon as we arrived in Verona, we were overwhelmed by its beauty, charm and the multitude of pedestrian and bike-friendly sidewalks. For the first time in our journey there were actually crosswalks where pedestrians had the right of way and cars actually stopped for them! If this was not enough, we headed into Piazza Bra, which is a massive area surrounding the ancient arena that is completely blocked off from traffic. The arena is quite large (although no comparison to the Colosseum) and is still used for performances today.

From here we made our way to the “home” of Juliet; yes that’s right, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The history of this place was not exactly clear, but apparently it was owned by a Capulet family on which the tale was based, and has a nice stone balcony that is well screened by a wall covered in ivy. As it has been a destination for lovers from all over the world, the walls leading up to the house are covered in love notes, the names of couples, and lots of chewing gum.

Next we made our way to the church of Santa Anastasia, as a thunderstorm hit Verona and it started pouring rain. We spent some time here and at the Duomo Cathedral admiring the architecture and beauty of the churches’ construction, dating back to the 1200s. The storm passed and we walked along the river to the Castlevecchio, the original fortress of Verona complete with drawbridge and moat. The castle has a small art museum, but the best features are the grounds and stairwells that lead up to provide spectacular views over the city and the river.

Womanning the parapets

Womanning the parapets

We spent at least an hour wandering the castle’s parapets and overlooking the city before deciding to head back to the train station. We were so impressed by the beauty and cleanliness of Verona, and so happy that we had a chance to experience a new city in Italy together. While Venice is charming and also architecturally stunning, Verona had a warmth and a romantic-ness to it that was different.  A little bad weather initially led to immaculate cloud-scapes which framed Verona’s unique style and beauty.

The stiff wind from the thunderstorms had blown some concrete dust from a construction site into Andrew’s right eye and lodged it there for the better part of the five hours we were in Verona.  This led to some rather comical “one eyed” moments including a trip to the pharmacy where the pharmacist didn’t speak english and Andrew trying to express “dust in the wind,” a stiff debate on whether to dunk Andrew’s head in a baptismal font at the Duomo and bleary eyed stumbling around two massive churches, a castle, and a frozen pizza.  As we walked back to the train station the bit of dust disappeared and Andrew was freed.  Despite all that, a great experience in a beautiful city.

We hopped on our train back to Venice, admiring the vineyards and farm land, and grabbed a bottle of wine for our evening train to Vienna. We were happily surprised when we saw that we had booked a private sleeping car called a “double lady” with its own bathroom and shower! The eleven hour journey was comfortable and pleasant, and we arrived well rested and groomed to find Vienna also beset by thunderstorms…

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