Saturday, July 16, 2011

Quad City Swing... Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, & Vienna...

First off, it’s October... Not really, but I need you to imagine it is October. It’s actually July 4th here. I celebrated in the usual Qatari way by going to work like always. No fireworks, no BBQ. For some reason, the birth of our nation is not a major holiday in the Middle East. Wonder why?

Last fall during the Eid break I needed to get out of town. I was in the mood to do some serious traveling; going old school backpacking in a nice cool climate. I was anxious to see some rain and drink in some cold night air. But with only a week I had to squeeze in as many sites as possible into one trip. With a little help from Alaska, my central-European tour guide, I decided to hit up some new sites in Europe in a four country capital swing… Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, and Vienna.

Less than a week before departing, I got a call from guess who?? Yup… [NAME REMOVED]. She wanted to get out of Abu Dhabi for a weekend, and asked if I wanted to get together. I told her it was too late, that I was headed to Berlin. Her response… “Can I come?” Uh… sure... I like traveling with my friends.

Alaska and I shared a taxi to the airport for an early morning flight to Berlin. Passport control was easy, but all the passengers were lined up one by one and we all had our full luggage dumped onto bare metal tables under guard while every item was pulled apart and searched. Just days before a bomb was sent to the German Chancellor Merkel in Berlin, and they weren’t pulling any punches regarding security. Alaska took off for wherever the hell she was going to, and I bought a multiday public transport pass and boarded a bright yellow bus to the nearest UBahn station. I cannot understand why I had to take a bus to a subway station that was less than a mile from the airport. Why couldn’t they just run the line that extra few kilometers? Buses suck.

The Berlin UBahn is decent enough, easy to navigate and efficient as hell. I knew exactly where to get off and find my hostel, but the line was cut short due to construction. I was forced off the car and meandered aimlessly for ten minutes trying to get my bearings. I finally had to break down and ask a blue-blazered “Ask Me For Help” guy at the station entrance. He directed me onto another bus (ugh) and said to ride a few kilometers until I see another station. I tried to do exactly that, but ended up getting off the bus too soon. I ended up circling a block trying to find the hostel, but found myself back on the bus for a few more stops. Finally I found my intersection and made my way to the bright orange door of the hostel. [NAME REMOVED] quickly found me looking tired as hell. Turns out she had arrived hours earlier and was stuck in limbo as the reservation was in my name. We walked down the street and picked up some stunning Parma ham sandwiches and hot chocolates; and spent the afternoon napping quietly in a tiny fourth floor flat.

When we both woke up, it was dark outside and some rain had blown in along with a severe drop in the temperature. The brisk, damp air filled our lungs like thick soup… I spent ten minutes walking around just drinking in the air. I was looking up a classic German restaurant, and the downstairs desk suggested a very old-school bar for us. A brisk walk in the rain up the road and a quick turn past a late-night patisserie (smelled like a yeasty heaven) and we found our restaurant. It was six small tables in the back room of a darkened bar.

We ordered roasted pork shoulder with dumplings, bratwurst with fried potatoes. Slices of black rye bread with a side of schmaltz and goose fat, and by God the best damn sauerkraut I’ve ever had. Seriously, we actually ordered seconds and thirds of the sauerkraut itself. To top it off were pints and pints of pure German pilsner beer. Very full, nearly bursting with German delights, we rolled back to the hostel and crashed out cold.

The next morning we woke too damn early. We ate the breakfast special of almond croissants and a decaf latte at the diner around the corner. We had to book it to another hostel to meet up for a walking tour of the city. There were only four of us, so it was a short tour that was going to merge with a big group down the road. I cannot remember our guide at all… all I can remember is that one of the ladies joining us was wearing a Burberry coat. Odd…

The group traipsed thru the cold and damp morning and visited the Jewish quarter and synagogues. Guards still patrol the street and ward off hooligans and neo-Nazis. Across the front stonework were lines of bullet holes that had strafed the building. From there we meandered back and forth thru hidden courtyards and back alleys, slightly reminiscent of old-town New Orleans.

We took a break in the partly demolished Tacheles department store. The decrepit and decaying building houses an unofficial artist collective. Every floor, room, and surface is covered by artists squatting in the bullet-ridden warehouse. Somehow they squeeze in bars and restaurants into the space. We spent our time walking thru the installations and shanties set up outside where tattooed Berliners were creating wrought iron sculptures and working rebar. It was interesting, but I prefer my art wearing the audio tour headphones while dodging security guards in tacky blue blazers.

Swerving into an UBahn station, we broke for lunch. I made a beeline straight to the standard German meat buffet and ordered pork sandwiches and the classic Berlin fast food, currywurst. Take a thick, spiced hotdog, slice chunky, and coat with a mixture of ketchup and curry powder, serve with potatoes or kraut and eat with a minuscule two-tined plastic fork… yum. I had to go back and get some pork shoulder with creamed potatoes as a digestif.

The walk continued to the Museumsinsel, the island in the middle of the Spree River that houses several of Germany’s best museums, including the Pergamum. I really wanted to go in, but the walking tour just kept going. Past the museums we joined up with a large group of Aussies on walkabout at the giant cupola outside of the main protestant church. It was here where Hitler used to give many of his rousing political speeches. Nazi items such as the flag and the salute are strictly forbidden; only the guides and movie productions are allowed to use them.

As we were about to walk into the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, the guide gave a quick summation of the history of the wall and its repercussions. [NAME REMOVED] chided me about not knowing very much about the Berlin airlift. I had to explain to her that the wall fell during my world geography class in my freshman year of high school. Before that, we knew of West and East Germany; mostly from the Olympics as the muscular (and quite hairy) East German women always won in power lifting or the hammer throw. The politics of the Cold War weren’t really a topic of interest for me or any fourteen year-old. For the bulk of my life, there’s only been one Germany.

A gentle rain started to fall as we reached the former everlasting flame to commemorate the Holocaust victims… I say former because they replaced it with a gut-wrenching statue of a woman cradling a starved man. From there we finally got to see the Wall… or at least the small portion that still remains behind fencing and plastic barriers. Checkpoint Charlie was up next, and was a disappointment. The classic sign of “you are now entering the American sector” still stands, and the guide gave a good story on how close we were to fighting the Soviets at this gate, but the area was really touristy and hokey. People were trying to sell the group wall pieces and stamps, plus there were competing men dressed as US and Russian soldiers to get your picture taken with. Also, the McDonald’s and the Starbucks on opposing corners next to the checkpoint killed any sense of history.

We passed by the Holocaust memorial at dusk, as somber as a place as you can imagine, especially with a setting sun and in the rain. As the rain started to fall harder and colder, we all pulled up into a gravel parking lot next to a nondescript apartment complex. It was here, in this parking lot, where World War II ended. For under the Volkswagens and Beamers were the remains of Hitler’s bunker, and the location of his suicide. We walked in the rain to check out Brandenburg Gate… a stunning site at night. The huge columns topped with the bronze chariot and horses is one of the most iconic scenes in all of Germany. Why exactly there was a man dressed up as an Apache Indian chief standing out front while people took pictures with him was unknown…

The Reichstag was next door, but the line was to get in was down the steps and into the lawn. So we bundled up and took the UBahn back to the hostel and dined on pho ca and hot pot with lemongrass tea at a really good Vietnamese place down the road. After dinner, we mainly argued about what we were going to do the next day. I wanted to go to museums. [NAME REMOVED] wanted to go to a concentration camp. What to do… what to do…

After an early morning hot chocolate and more Parma sandwiches, we made a beeline to the Reichstag in order to get in line early. After a brief wait we took the lift up to the stunning glass dome atop the German parliament. I spiraled up the walkway to the top while listening to my audio tour of Berlin. After marveling at the vista of Berlin, we hustled out to the UBahn since we had to hurry to catch the S1 train north out of Berlin. The graffiti walls disappeared into quiet suburbs as we progressed thru small station houses. Without warning, everyone got off the train four stations early… turns out the construction that stopped my train earlier had derailed our plans on taking the train all the way. Not quite knowing where the hell we were, we just followed the crowd to a bus station where we climbed aboard; hoping to God that we wouldn’t end up in Frankfurt.

Thankfully, the bus dropped us off at yet another train station where we continued our trip to Oranienburg. We popped out of a charming yellow station in the middle of a small town you’d swear was a model for a Norman Rockwell painting. The little blue signs pointed out our twenty minute walk on the sidewalks while elderly people trimmed branches and raked up leaves behind their picket fences. You would never know that tucked behind these homes was Senchenhausen concentration camp.

Under gray skies and drizzling rain, the concrete frontage of the entrance greeted us. Getting the audio tour, we approached the black iron gates with the chilly German phrase twisted into them “arbeit macht frei”… work shall set you free. Inside the camp were recreations of the death zone fence lines and barracks. Exhibits of their clothing, food, tools, and writings were all on display. Boulders that were scattered around the compound were all covered with small stones and pebbles. Turns out it’s a Jewish tradition to honor those who are dead, like makeshift tombstones.

A trench behind a wall was uncovered… the execution trench. It was in that trench where over 30,000 people were killed. Their bodies disposed in the furnaces behind a barren white wall. It was a horrific site, but absolutely worth the visit. Sadness and rage mixed with confusion all wells up inside. No one, absolutely no one can visit a place like Senchenhausen without pangs of guilt or remorse. Walking back thru the cozy houses with local walking their dogs, all I could do was imagine what were the people who lived in these houses previously thought was going on behind the white gates.

We jumped on the train, bus, and UBahn back to Berlin and down to Checkpoint Charlie. For as hokey as it is, good history museums surround the intersection. We paid way too much money to visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that demonstrates all the personal history of the wall including ugly dioramas of ingenious devices used to scale, fly, or tunnel thru the wall. The hostel recommended to eat dinner at a very popular restaurant called White Trash Fast Food… a combination restaurant, bar, club, and tattoo parlor. The place was packed full with ultra-trendy hipsters… and us. While waiting for our seats we downed pitchers of vodka lemonade. Our table was barely the size of a dinner plate but somehow held our chili-cheese burgers, greasy onion-rings, and valley porno-nachos. They were showing both the Wizard of Oz and The Last Dragon on the walls filled with oddball kitsch. Great place if you ever have the chance…

In the early morning [NAME REMOVED] woke and left for her flight back to Abu Dhabi. Hopefully, her three day jaunt was enough to cheer her spirits. As for me, I slept in. When I woke up I took off to the Berlin Hauptbanhof to catch my train to Prague. The hauptbanhof (main train house) is beautiful! Layer upon layer of escalators and bridges crisscross a mall while the trains pull in beneath you… really cool.

I pulled out of Berlin in my first class seat; I treated myself. The scenery outside of Berlin was stunning. The tracks followed the Spree River and later joined the Vltava River. Green farms turned into high sandstone cliffs with cathedrals and barns perched overhead. The tracks swerved back and forth following the turns of the rivers. The scenery changed almost immediately as soon as we entered the Czech Republic. The homes became dingy and ragged; the farms not nearly as neat and orderly. After five and a half hours on the train, we pulled into the capital city of the Czech Republic… Prague.

Right off the bat I found myself in a familiar predicament… how to use their metro system. Every time I visit another country or city, I end up standing in front of a kiosk or standing alone doe-eyed staring into a machine trying to decipher where to insert the money. Why can’t all of Europe just consolidate their systems? How come no one explains the difference between IC and EC trains? Worse than buying the tickets is using them. Does the turnstile machine keep the ticket? Or spit it back out? More than once I’ve left my ticket in the turnstile when I need it to actually get on the train. And every ticket should at least say or at least have a diagram that describes whether or not you have to validate your ticket. I know I’ve rode trains illegally since I never can tell if I need to punch my cards or not.

After I exited the metro, I boarded a tram to a nearby park, and walked the last block to my hotel, Mosaic House. After my stay, I found out that Mosaic House was named one of the top budget hotels in Europe, and it was definitely worth the stay. Really pretty, very modern, in a great part of town… and really cheap. Best part, they were showing an NFL game… God I miss real football.

The only downside of the hotel was that they room was way too hot. I woke up at three a.m. sweating like the proverbial nun in a whorehouse. I spend all morning watching Burn Notice episodes on Hulu until breakfast. After my good yogurt with chocolate granola and fruit, I headed out for the free walking tour of Prague. The city itself is incredibly beautiful and romantic! Cobblestone streets weave between the gothic buildings. At the Old Town Square I joined up with about fifty other people for the tour. We started at one of Prague’s most famous landmarks, the astronomical clock. It’s a clock with the sun and moon on it, tells you your zodiac sign and other things… it’s still just a clock. What is neat is the calendar under the clock. For every day of the year, there is a corresponding saint. And according to Czech law, children must be named for one of the 365 saints. So on St. Benjamin’s day, it’s the birthday of everyone in town named Benjamin… great idea actually. But the best part of the tour start was that in the town square they were setting up the kiosks for the Christmas markets… and were roasting whole pigs on spits for that afternoon’s local wine fest. Oh holy hell did Prague smell good…

The guide Katherine was quirky and funny. She gave a long history of Prague and the Czech Republic, including the uprisings, the Nazis, life under the Soviets, and the Hussites… whoever the hell they were. The Jewish quarter was particularly quaint. It was there where the oldest synagogue in Europe still stands in what looks like the bottom of a crater. It was at this synagogue where the story of the Gollum was created… sculpted from clay and stored in the attic. When the Nazi’s occupied Prague, they were scared to enter the building. During this trip I was reading Bill Bryson’s At Home, a great history of everyday life. In it he explains why all the really old churches look like they’re sinking into the ground. They’re not… the land around them is rising. Overtime as bodies of dead parishioners are buried around the church, the accumulated mass builds up and swells around the buildings. Just beside the synagogue was a massive tower of earth behind a stone wall that was holding back centuries of the Jewish dead.

I quickly popped my head into Big Ben’s Bookstore, just to make sure they didn’t have an effigy of me in there. The tour ended at the national theatre right by the Charles Bridge over the gorgeous Vltava River. I perched myself on the steps of the opera house to wait for another tour to begin. After sharing my lighter with a young Arabic man on the steps, I found out he was a cousin of someone I work with in Doha… yet another small world.

The new guide Michael showed up to lead the tour. An American who moved to Prague to follow a woman, he was a Ph.D. student in political science and liked to rail against the fascists in power. We crossed the bridge and began the hike up the hill to Prague Castle. Damn I hate steps…

Prague Castle is a huge mish-mash of buildings, styles, and Gothic architecture. The largest castle in the world, it’s over half a kilometer long and gives a stunning overview of the city far below. Capped by the Monastery of St. George and St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the twisting alleys skirt every-which-way, and around every corner is another tucked away another square or tunnel. The cathedral itself is a monument of Gothic architecture; honestly the most beautiful church I have ever seen. But to gain entrance, I had to fib a little. Political infighting between the Catholic Church and the Czech government has placed the ownership of the church in limbo. To enter, I had to say I was Catholic (true) and I that wanted to pray (not so true). But after getting in the church and marveling at the Gothic apses and stained glass rose windows… I did pray a little.

Taking a break, we got some hot chocolate from a café next door. Although it wasn’t really hot chocolate… it was more like scalding chocolate cake batter. I actually stood my spoon up straight in the cup. It coated my insides like delicious, sugary road tar.

We walked around the castle grounds including garden, mini-theater, and site of Nazi SS, Gestapo, and Secret Police headquarters. One secret police car pulled over and told us all to not walk on the street. Michael ended up railing on how people were prosecuted and pulled out of their homes by the police in the middle of the night. Michael holds a grudge.

As the night got dark, the tour kept going. We had great overview of city and the Charles Bridge at night. Soon we all split up and walked down to Bridge with members of group, including an apprentice guide. The Charles Bridge at night was amazing with the orange street lights of the city reflecting off the damned river; although the guide suggested that we keep a hold on our wallets. My feet were starting to die on me, so I passed by the wine fest to grab some pulled pork right off the pig. A jazz band was playing in the bar of the hostel, but I didn’t have the strength to party down, so I just crashed out cold.

I awoke was too early again to what was a great scene. A girl came into the room and tried to climb up the steps to her bunk while wearing stockings. But either the silken footwear or the stench of booze wafting off of her gave her a slip, and she ended up falling down the steps onto her ass with a squeal. I rolled over and offered to help and all she could muster to say was “my ass… my poor ass…”

Rain was coming down in sheets as I ate my granola and yogurt before heading out to catch the tram to the train station. As the train took off thru the rain out of Prague, they city was gray and morose; but still beautiful and noble. I grabbed a seat in a compartment with an old lady, and opened my book for the six hours to Bratislava, Slovakia.

The scenery passed by fast, small farms were quickly swallowed by dark forests. The trained stalled for half an hour in Brno, but I just grabbed a quick smoke on the platform and expensive water. As the train approached Bratislava, the farmland became increasingly junky and dirty. The Bratislava train station was a dump: trashy, tiny, and dirty. The bus system was a mess and I could not figure out where my hostel was in relation to the station. I decided to go ahead and grab a cab, but the cabbie tried to charge me 20Euro for a ride! After arguing for five minutes telling him he was full of bullshit, I finally got it down to 10Euro. The cab ride… four minutes. Dammit… the day just started out poorly.

My hostel was a little hard to locate since it was inside of a bar. I walked into the red door that showed the hostel name, but only found a bar and early morning (or late night) patrons inside. I thought I had the wrong place, when a lady called out my name and said my room was ready. She made me wear a plastic bracelet like at Schlitterbahn for identification, and it was just sad looking. I had to force myself thru a very narrow door and walk up three large flights of stairs to reach the room; actually it was six bedrooms around a central, very tiny bathroom. I chose the largest bed around, a girl’s day bed; not bad if you’re five foot five, not so great if you’re over six foot.

I walked ten minutes into the old town to check out the sights. The rain had stopped and the sun was out in the middle of the day, but I never felt safe or secure. The people seemed cold and callous. Smiles to strangers walking along the road were never returned. Men tried to stare me down, and shopkeeps looked pissed as I walked past their shops. It was kinda eerie.

The old town had its charms, with the white castle looming above, although it was closed for renovation. Nice little squares and wide streets intersected a multitude of narrow alleys. At the end of the town I walked on the edge of the Danube and tried to figure out why they built the Novy Most Bridge to look like a flying saucer had landed on top of it. It is so ugly. In fact, there really wasn’t anything in the town you could call “pretty.” Everything seemed tired and burdened. The only thing that was amusing was watching pretty women in high heels trying to clamber over the rough cobblestone streets. Back at the hostel, I had their local beer and asked for whatever came close to a national dish. What they served me was a plate of heavy, doughy potato dumplings smothered to death in melted goat’s cheese. Sprinkled on top were thick chunks of bacon that were rendered so much that they tasted like greasy bacon croutons. I poured the Plataly Beer down my throat so it wouldn’t close up on me. After that meal, I had enough of Bratislava, and sat in the bar and read until bedtime.

For the second morning in a row, I was awoken in a strange way. A young woman came into the room with a pack on her back, set it down on the floor, and then sat on my chest… not realizing in the morning dark that I was under the covers. I gasped and she screamed, begging my forgiveness. I made a joke about strange women climbing into my bed; she laughed then left the room in haste. I was so hoping to have some fodder for Penthouse Letters…

In the cold drizzling rain I headed out into the sad Bratislava morning in search of Nugeta. Don’t know Nugeta? Neither did me. Alaska had asked me for a favor. She wanted me to buy her a few bottles of Nugeta. What is it? It’s the same as Nutella but made with peanuts instead of hazelnuts. She said I could buy it at the Tesco in Bratislava, and out I went. It was only supposed to be a ten minute walk away, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it. I circled and circled while slowly getting soaked without any luck. I finally convinced someone to point me the way, and it led to the same store I kept passing. Turns out, the Tesco changed its name. For the cream on top, it happened to be some sort of national holiday, and the store was opening two hours late. People huddled under umbrellas pulling their grocery carts lined up outside looking pissed off. The door finally opened and I got five jars of the spread. This shit better be worth it (postscript: I ate a bottle, it’s miraculous! Like creamy Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups!) To make my day even better, as I climbed the wet steps up to the hostel, I slipped and threw my back out… fuckin’ Nugeta!!

The barmaid explained the bus system to be, and I caught the bus back to train station, for fifty cents. I wanted to find that cab driver and beat him to death. I bought my train ticket to Vienna, but had just missed the train. I had to wait over an hour in that shitty train station, so I put on my scarf and sat on the platform soaking up the cold northerly wind. Ten minutes prior to departure, the platform changed, and I scuttled off to get onboard the tightly packed G-Train. After an hour-and-a-half the train arrived in Vienna, Austria; at the Sudbanhof… not the Westbanhof I needed.

With the spine on the verge of collapse, I struggled to carry my pack a kilometer down the road to the UBahn station to get to the Westbanhof. I finally found my hostel, the Wombats Lounge. It was really nice with a great, funky atmosphere. My room was an interesting mix: one Sikh, one Aussie, and one really creepy older guy who stunk like rotten shit and wore hipster fashions waaay too young for him. He might as well been wearing a t-shirt that read “GHB peddler and I’m on a pussy hunt.” I tried to walk around town a little, but my back was failing fast. Instead, I bought some cold cuts and pudding cups next door and spent the day reading a book in my dorm. Not at all how I planned to enjoy Vienna.

With only one day left, I forced myself downstairs for breakfast yogurt and ham. The back was about to drop, but I needed to try and walk otherwise it was going to get even worse. I headed to the subway and rode to the Volkstheatre in the Museum Quarter. From there I followed the Lonely Planet walking tour. From the open park area you quickly make your way into dense urban shopping areas with wide boulevards and high-end stores. I occasionally listened in to the English-speaking tour operators guiding bus loads of retirees thru the city. I walked past the statues of Mozart and Josef, and made my way up Kärnten and thru the gates of the old city. From there it was easy to spot Vienna’s main sight, the Stephansdom gothic cathedral. It was nice, but not as nice as Prague’s. I exited the gates of the city thru the Hofburg Palace and toured around the park outside the twin natural history and cultural museums. My back was getting ready to die on me, so I headed to the UBahn and headed for Schloss Schönbrunn, the royal palace on the outskirts of the city.

Christmas trees were being set up for the holiday activities in front of the Rococo yellow façade. The interior was similar to a modern Versailles; gilded gold, blue walls, lots of china and an oriental room. It was nice that there were amenities from the most recent residents still intact. But after strolling along the hardwood floors, my back was just about done. I bought my shot glass souvenir and went back to the hostel. I picked up my dinner on the way, some roadside fried schnitzel with chips. Damn that was good food… especially after Bratislava’s national dish of greasy shit.

I wanted to check out the museums and the Lipizzaner stallions, but there was no way I was going to make it out of Vienna in one piece if I didn’t rest. I cracked my chemical cold pack for my back, and slept very soundly until the morning. After an early breakfast, I made my way out to the airport for the flight back to Doha.

I love traveling in luxury… I love a good concierge and a nice swim-up bar. But I love the slightly dirty, cheapo feel of single bag, street food, hostel travel. When my back isn’t giving out on me, it always makes me feel younger and spirited when I’m roughing it. But even with the pain, Berlin was a ton of fun, Prague was beautiful, Bratislava was a pit, and Vienna was much too short.


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