Prague’s Bridges at Night – Weekly Travel Photo

Prague's Bridges at Night

One of the best parts about Prague is its incredible series of bridges.  They line the lazy bends in the river and create a unique texture that somehow snags the eye and pulls it in.   By day the bridges inspire with their varied architecture – some modern, some historic.  By night they entreat the onlooking eye with a blur of light and color.

While the most famous is, of course, Charles Bridge with its wide pedestrian walkway and series of statues representing saints and kings, each bidge has its own storz and charm.  This photo was captured on a snowy evening from a park that sits opposite Prague Castle.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a  Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Charles Bridge at Night – Weekly Travel Photo

Charles Bridge at Night - Prague

With the crisp crunch of fresh snow under boot I made my way down to one of Prague’s signature landmarks. It was 1:30AM and the temperature had dropped to about -10 degrees Celsius.  It was cold.  Brutally cold. Luckily, the light wind had died down and all that was left were brief waves of light snowfall.  Snowfall so sporadic and with flakes so light that they slowly drifted to earth, seemingly defying gravity all the way until the last moment when they threaded their crystalline structure in with the myriad of beautiful shapes already decorating the bridge’s cold stones.  There were only a few of us willing to brave the late hour, cold and snow – a rare opportunity and occurrence for one of Prague’s most popular landmarks.

So it was that I stood huddled behind my camera and tripod snapping photos and waiting for half-drunk, star struck lovers to wander their way along the bridge, pausing periodically for a deep kiss.  If not couples, it was small groups of party goers slowly wandering their way back to their hostels.  Perhaps the most colorful was a young man in his late 20s who was completely sloshed, had a red rose with long stem in one hand along with a cigar.  In the other, he delicately held a nearly full wine glass.  As he passed he smiled and nodded, almost skipping as he walked – caught completely in the moment.  He looked the part of a dandy, fashionable dress shoes, long light colored scarf, and jacket hanging open in apparently defiance of the weather.  Shortly after passing me he slipped on the ice, and went down in a roll, somehow managing to not only keep his wine glass in hand but to keep it from sloshing too much of the wine onto the snow.  An impressive accomplishment

Charles Bridge is a beautiful structure.  Lined by imposing statues, and with two large guard towers standing vigil at either end it embodies everything a historic bridge should be.  It stretches across Prague’s Vltava River and is was built over a 60 year period in the late 1300s and early 1400s.  If you find yourself in Prague, don’t just settle for a mid-day viewing when the bridge is covered in vendors, buskers and tourists.  Bundle up and head down to catch it in its empty glory.  It is a beautiful and memorable site!

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a  Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Next Adventure Booked: Central and Eastern Europe

Prague at Sunset

Hello readers!  I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just booked my next adventure!  Where to this time?  Well, I’m not EXACTLY sure where just yet.  What I can share is that most of my airfare is booked and the trip is starting to take form.

I’ve booked a ticket from Phoenix to Dublin on Friday June 25th.  Once in Dublin, I’ll be arriving early in the morning on Saturday – which should give me time to find my way back to one of my favorite hostels in the Isles: Kinlay Hostel.

My stay in Dublin will be brief.  By Monday the 28th I plan to be on a budget flight to Central Europe.  There is a strong probability that I’ll be flying into Budapest, Hungary.  From there I’ll be making a large loop (The loop may include Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic, Germany) before flying out of Nuremberg, Germany on July 13th.

For those curious, I’ve added the Dublin portion as a way to cut costs.  Airfare this summer is ridiculously high during the late June->August period. Fortunately, it should give me a quick opportunity to re-visit the Cliffs of Moher which I love. Unfortunately, I’ll also be flying US Airways to cut costs (can we PLEASE get more airlines to open hubs in Phoenix?). To say that I’m not thrilled about that fact is a gross understatement.  Their track record thus far has been miserable, but the price was right – and I guess at this point I know what I’m getting myself into..

I’ve visited Prague and Dublin previously, the rest of the cities and most of the countries will be new.  I can’t wait to explore the Czech countryside in greater depth and am really looking forward to getting back into Bavaria (Munich on previous trips).  I’ve heard nothing but praise about Budapest and am very curious to see what incredible cultural, physical, culinary and natural beauty the region has to offer.

Have must see/stay places along the route?  Post them in a comment! I’d love to hear your tips and suggestions!

Traveler’s 101 – The Complete Travel Tip Post

Guejar Spain Boot Shot by Alex Berger

**Please be advised that an updated version of this list is available on VirtualWayfarer’s new sister site http://ultimatepackinglist.com. In addition to a more comprehensive list, the site features additional travel packing videos and a hostel/backpacking specific amazon shopping list.

The following is a comprehensive list of general travel advice specifically tailored to backpack/hostelers and the Euro zone. However, I believe no matter where you are traveling or what approach you will be taking, you’ll find a lot of good – and some unique information below.

Money

Notify your bank & credit card company – Credit Card companies have a number of checks in place to help protect you from fraud.  Unfortunately, these checks can be a real nightmare if you forget to notify your bank/CC company that you’ll be leaving the country.  Make sure to call and notify them that you’ll be traveling.  If they start seeing a lot of charges from a foreign location, they may put a hold on your card thinking it has been stolen. Make sure to provide dates you’ll be gone as well as the countries you expect to visit.  There is nothing worse than trying to get a replacement credit card company while on the road.

Choose the right card – You’re going to pay a currency penalty no matter what you do.  However, how much you end up paying can vary widely.  Almost all credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee. These fees vary, but are often as much as 3%.  What percentage they charge varies from card to card and from bank to bank. Make sure to find out which of your credit cards gives you the best deal.  The same goes for bank ATMs and debit card use.  Find out what the fee is, and what type of ATM’s are in your bank’s extended networks.  Many travelers unwittingly spend $6+ on fees for every $100 in purchases or cash withdrawals they make.  The FlyerGuide.com wiki offers one of the best breakdowns/easy to use charts i’ve found.

Currency Exchanges – I avoid these if at all possible. By using ATMs and following the advice I’ve outlined for reducing ATM fees I’m able to get the best currency exchange rate possible. Exchange booths are expensive and take a fee.  They also tend to give outdated currency values.  When you use an ATM to withdraw funds you will typically receive a better, more up to date, fairer exchange rate.

Travelers Checks and Money Transfers – Travelers checks are huge in the movies, and so are money transfers.  In reality though, these two things are expensive and inconvenient.  I typically use Visa/MasterCard credit cards/ATM cards while traveling and have never had an issue.  Research the countries you’ll be visiting and figure out what cards are commonly used. In most cases credit cards or cash will be far more welcome than travelers checks.

Contact Information

Xeroxing important information – Few things are more inconvenient than losing or having your passport, important documents and/or credit cards stolen. Take the 5 minutes to copy the photo page of your passport, and both sides of your credit cards.  Make two copies.  One to stash in some obscure part of your backpack and one to leave with your stateside contact.  Remember to keep a close eye on the xerox copies – they’re a great asset if you lose the originals, but can also be used to steal your identity if they get into the wrong hands.

Email yourself – If you have a web based e-mail platform, e-mailing yourself scans/copies of credit cards, important documents and passport info is a great alternative to the xeroxed copies outlined above. It’s easier to access, less likely to be compromised/stolen, and guaranteed to always be on hand.

Community

Blog from the road – Do yourself, your friends, and your family a huge favor.  Set up a blog before you leave. It’s free, easy and a great way to update friends and family.  Sure, you can send a postcard out – but why not give them the chance to share your adventures with you?  I highly recommend using WordPress – you can get a free, hosted WordPress blog at WordPress.com.  In addition to saving you from writing 10-15 separate e-mails to friends and family, a trip blog creates a journal which you’ll be incredibly greatful for as you reminisce about your trip a year or two from now.  Be descriptive and share your adventures – it’s a wonderful gift to friends, family and yourself.  Internet cafes are common place on the road and the hour every day or two you’ll need to write an update can be a welcome rest period. Don’t know what to write?  Check out some of my past travel posts from the road.

Resources – There are a lot of wonderful travel communities out there.  It’s somewhat newer but TBEX or Travel Blog Exchange is a wonderful way of finding fantastic travel blogs and connecting with experienced travelers.  If you’ve got a question or are looking for ideas – I highly recommend perusing their members lists.  Need other sites or resources?  Just let me know and I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.

Health

Vitamins – Yeah, yeah I know.  It’s basic.  However, it’s something commonly overlooked. When you’re traveling – especially if you’ve just started the trip, vitamin intake is a lifesaver. It’s not enough to just take your daily vitamin.  Keep in mind that you’re exposed to a whole spread of new foods, new germs, and are temporarily drastically changing your lifestyle.  During the first 3 days of any trip I double up on my multi-vitamins with a heavy focus on making sure I have a very high B vitamin intake. B vitamins are fantastic, they’ll give you more energy, improve your metabolism and help repair the added strain/damage your body is taking. I’m also a huge fan of anything with amino-acids in it. Especially if you’re doing a lot of foot-based touring. One great source is products like EmergenC.  It has B vitamins, amino acids and a boatload of Vitamin C all in one hit.  Sure they say it doesn’t work, but I call baloney.  2 or 3 of those a day and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor.

Hydrate – Sure, drinking water is common advice…but it’s a pain so most people don’t do it.  Big mistake – especially if you want to reduce jet lag.  Sure, it’s difficult to know when your next bathroom break will be, but do yourself a favor – amp up your water intake and skip the soda/carbonated beverages for a few days.   Taking your vitamins and staying hydrated will keep your body much healthier, improve recovery time, and increase the resilience of your immune system.  Getting chapped lips or peeling cuticles?  Drink more water – you’re dehydrated.

Timing is important – In my experience one major element that contributes to jet lag is that of mental adjustment.  If you’re traveling trans Atlantic make sure to set your watch forward as soon as you board the plane.  Use the 14 hour flight to adjust mentally instead of spending 14 hours in flux and then trying to adjust once you’ve arrived.  Once you’re on that plane operate exclusively on destination time and try not to think about what time it is at your point of origin.  It sounds silly, but it makes a huge difference.

Packing

Leave the suitcase at home – Even if you aren’t planning to “backpack” in the conventional sense of the word, ditch the suitcases and trade them in for a quality backpack. A suitcase with wheels is all well and good, but 8 out of 10 times those wheels will only be useful 5-10% of the time. A backpack is effective 100% of the time.  It also encourages you to pack more effectively.  Wearing the pack also gives you increased security but more on that later. There are cheap options out there, the blue pack in the video’s I’ve attached below was made by Outdoor Products, cost $45 and was purchased at Walmart.

Keep the straps in mind – The one downside to a backpack is the need to protect the shoulder straps, waist belt, and clips. A lot of newer backpacks have zip up covers which allow you to protect your straps when traveling by bus, plane or train. If yours doesn’t, you might consider purchasing a small, cheap duffel bag which you can roll up and strap to the outside of the backpack while traveling. This also makes securing your bag in hostels or hotels significantly easier.

Roll your clothing – Folding may be all well and good for a suitcase, but it’s terribly inefficient and can result in badly wrinkled clothing.  A far better option is to tightly roll your clothing. It naturally eliminates a lot of the air which takes up spare space, allows for easier access to your clothing, and allows you to fit significantly more into the same space. Don’t just roll pants and shirts though! Make sure to roll it all, towels, jackets, boxers and sweaters!

Bulky items – Inevitably I find most people (myself included) lose a lot of space to 2 or 3 bulky items.  Sometimes it’s unavoidable – let’s face it, jackets are big and puffy.  However, usually at least one of the items isn’t actually necessary.

Towel time – Ditch the bulky bath towel. There’s only one way to go when traveling – microfiber travel towels.  I’ve been using PackTowl Personal for years and love them. They dry quickly, are soft, are incredibly absorbent, and roll up to take virtually no space. To top it all off, you can get what you need for less than $20.

Pants and shirts – Take whatever you’ve packed and halve it. You don’t need to take a week’s worth of outfits with you. In fact, I can tell you right now you’ve over packed.  If you are not 110% confident that you’ll need and wear the items you’re packing multiple times, don’t pack them.  Have more than two pairs of pants? You shouldn’t.  More than 4 t-shirts?  Time to axe a few.

Power converters – It’s often a lot easier to get these once you reach your destination. However, don’t rule out picking up converter plugs before your trip if you know where you’re going.

Bags & shoelaces – Sure, you can get them at any time during your trip but I highly suggest throwing an old pair of shoelaces into your bag, a plastic shopping bag, and a few Ziplocs of differing sizes.  Think of these as your traveler’s duct tape.  You never know how or when they’ll come in handy. Example: While exploring the Scottish Isle of Skye we spent a day in nasty light rain and strong winds…not enough to keep us inside, but enough to damage any non-waterproof camera.  Luckily I had a ziploc bag on hand and was able to create a waterproof case for the camera. The result?  A bunch of amazing photos I would have otherwise completely missed out upon.

Super Glue – I’d suggest only purchasing this when needed to avoid having it explode in your bag.  That said, Super Glue is phenomenal for quick on-the-road repairs.  I’ve used it on multiple occasions to reinforce ripped seams on my backpack/bags/shoulder straps, on small cuts and as a quick way to make other general repairs.

Footwear – Two fundamental sets of footwear you’ll need for any trip.  The first is a good pair of shoes walking/hiking shoes. I’ve been using Keen’s Men’s Targhee II for years because I love the fit, price and support. Make sure the shoe fits, can be worn in a variety of settings and is light enough for days spent exploring cobblestone streets but capable of slugging through rural highland mountains. Make sure to try them on in a store before you buy.  Find one that works?  I saved $30 by ordering the shoes off Amazon.

The second piece of footwear you shouldn’t be caught without is a pair of plastic shower thongs/sandals. Make these as cheap and light as possible. All you want is a basic, plastic $2 pair that dries fast.  You do NOT want a nice pair of sandals and definitely should avoid sandals with leather.

Flip Video Camera – Recording your trip is always a challenge, especially as a hosteler/backpacker. You need something portable, affordable, but still high enough quality that the video is worthwhile. The new line of portable video cameras are great. In late 2008 I shot the two packing videos below with a first generation Flip Ultra. I liked the product so much that I’ve since upgraded to the Flip UltraHD Camcorder which records up to 2 hours, has better audio quality and shoots in HD. The cameras range in price, but the top of the line versions run right around $200. They’re the size of a cellphone and work beautifully for capturing video – most people think they are a cellphone.

Here are two videos from my last trip – a December voyage to Spain. The videos illustrate the rolled packing technique and provide a step by step walk through of things I took with me.  Note: Despite going out of my way to pack light, I still over packed:

Hostels

Not your parent’s hostels – The modern Euro hostel is totally different than what the movies and old stories have probably led you to believe.  Most are clean, modern, and have fantastic amenities. In fact, it’s not uncommon for hostels to provide communal kitchens, en suite bathrooms, free/charge internet access and all sorts of organized events. Heck, believe it or not – a lot actually have on-site bars!  Oh, and the whole…bring your own sheets or a sleeping bag…Not anymore! In fact, leave the sleeping bag and spare sheets at home. In order to prevent bed bugs and for health reasons mainstream hostels now provide linens and in most cases prohibit you from using your own. One thing to be prepared for (and personally I think it’s a huge asset) is mixed-sex dorm rooms. While almost all hostels provide female-only rooms, the vast majority offer rooms in a mixed gender dorm format.

Booking – Depending on what time of the year you’re traveling, you might want to book ahead.  Regardless, you’ll want to do some research (no better way to avoid bad experiences and bedbugs). There are three fantastic resources for booking and research.  The first (and largest) is hostelworld.com The site allows easy booking and has a huge database of user submitted reviews which are invaluable.  Slightly smaller, but equally valuable is hostelbookers.com.  A third and relatively newcomer to the hostel database/online booking industry is the industry travel site bootsnall.com.  Keep in mind that it’s sometimes possible to get a discount rate by booking with the hostel directly, and that many hostels have an extra cache of beds available (so even if one of these sites isn’t showing availability – sometimes another will have access to vacant beds).

For those of you traveling in Europe – one word of caution about Hosteling International hostels.  HI was one of the first major hosteling groups and still clings to the outdated hostel model.  A lot of their hostels have lockouts, group showers, charge extra for linens and are dirty. They are most prevalent in Italy where hosteling outside of major tourist destinations can be tricky.

Lockouts – Most hostels have abandoned the lockout model, but you’ll still find some shoddy ones that have lockouts.  When booking online always make sure to check if a hostel has lockouts before you book.  The standard lockout process means that the hostel locks the front doors during the day and late at night.  For example, a standard lockout would be from 10AM-4PM and from 11Pm to 6AM.

Basic Hostel Etiquette – There are basic rules. I’ll cover them in greater depth in a different post, but here are four main ones to keep in mind.

*Noise – you are sharing a room with a number of strangers.  Be respectful.  If you know you’ll be returning late in the evening, or leaving early in the morning make sure to pre-pack/unpack.  Most hostels have 24/7 receptions.  That means you’ll have the option of getting back at all hours of the night.  Follow the golden rule.

*The light switch – after 11PM the lights stay off with few exceptions. Sure, you can turn them on, but unless the room is empty or your party makes up the sole occupants – do whatever you need to do in the dark.  Same principle as with noise applies – have your stuff ready and easily accessible. If you slap the lights on at 3AM in a drunken stupor, you’re going to look like an idiot and make a lot of enemies very quickly.

*Clean up after yourself – hostels are usually staffed by other travelers.  If you’re lucky enough to stay at one with a kitchen or common area, don’t leave a mess and then walk away.  There’s no housecleaning and there’s no maid – that’s why you’re paying pennies on the dollar for the room.  When you leave a mess, you’re punishing everyone else.

*Be friendly and inclusive – One of the best parts of hosteling is all of the people you meet. Don’t be bashful when it comes to reaching out to fellow travelers, and make an added effort to invite your fellow hostelers to tag along. Don’t worry, it’s not weird to ask a perfect stranger if they want to head over to the nearby market with you.

Internet Cafes – There was a time when taking a trip meant complete disconnect from the rest of the world. Of late, it’s become common for travelers to travel with laptops, mobile phones, and other similar peripherals leaving them connected in ways previously unimaginable.  However, some of us enjoy a happy medium.  If you’re planning on traveling and are worried about staying connected, but don’t want to take a laptop – don’t worry. Internet cafes are significantly more common in Europe than the U.S. and Canada.  Rates are also typically very affordable (In Europe they range from 1-3 Euro an hour in most locations).  Keep in mind, however, that the connection quality can vary widely.  Also, it’s not uncommon to find internet cafes that are running specialized software which at times restrict the use of peripherals (Double check that you’ll be able to connect and access your camera before you settle in).

Security

A locker lock – Security in hostels is fairly lax and can take some getting used to. That said, there’s seldom need to worry.  Most hostels provide security lockers for your gear and/or valuables.  The standard approach is to provide a locker (think back to your high school days).  Lockers are typically associated with your bed and are present in the room.  I’ve seen them in all different shapes and forms – from metal, to wood, to enclosed caged racks.  One thing is always the same though: you provide your own lock should you decide to use one. For this reason it’s advisable to pick up a small but sturdy lock that will fit a wide variety of locker types. I used a small luggage lock and very rarely had any issues.  Be mindful that larger, sturdier locks may not always fit.  It’s also important to note, that some hostels also provide in- room, programmable safes. These are a luxury and convenience, but also a growing trend.  Typically an electronic key card is provided when safes are available.

Don’t stand still – Know that annoying guy at the airport or on the subway that just won’t stand still? Sure, he won’t stop moving or pacing and it’s a bit annoying, but it’s also a fantastic way to avoid pick pockets. Train yourself to perpetually move, even if it’s as simple as shifting your weight from side to side. By randomly moving and not standing perfectly still, you’ll make yourself a more challenging target. Thieves and pickpockets will have to deal with a moving target, and risk bumping you – both of which increase the chances that you’ll be alerted to their presence. No need to pace, but a little minor motion can go a long way to helping discourage criminal fingers.

Abandon your back pockets – I love to wear jeans when I’m traveling and as a guy I’ve always got a wallet on me. Like most guys my wallet is usually in my back right pocket and fairly bulky.  When I hit the road though it takes the place of my car keys in my front pocket, where I’ve trained myself to casually brush my hand on a regular basis. My back pockets?  Reserved for things like maps, bulky papers, fliers, and random tickets.  I like keeping my maps in my back pockets (folded) because it adds the appearance of bulk/a wallet without endangering valuables.

General

Photo & Video backup CDs – Any time I’m on an extended trip I’m always paranoid about losing my photos and videos. What if my camera gets stolen or the memory card dies? Most camera stories have digital development kiosks.  For less than $10 and 15 minutes you can usually create a backup DVD with all of your photos on it.   Or if you’re game to do a bit more work, you can usually save a few dollars by burning your own DVD at a local computer cafe.  I suggest making backups every 4-700 photos. One thing to definitely keep in mind – don’t delete the photos after burning the backup.  DVDs scratch fairly easily, especially while traveling.  Keep the DVD as a backup – not – as a replacement.  Hopefully you’ll never need it, but if you do – it sure beats losing your images, or the quality loss that occurs when you try and re-download photos you posted to Facebook.

Travel Cards – Websites like Facebook and Twitter have made keeping in touch with fellow travelers much easier.  Add e-mail into the mix and you’ve got a pretty cool tool to keep in touch with the amazing people you meet during your trip.  However, it’s often difficult to track each other down/get accurate contact information.  I can’t tell you how many people I missed out on keeping in touch with because I couldn’t read their handwriting or the note I’d written on a random scrap of paper had gotten smeared.  Consider creating travel cards – basically business cards – but to share with fellow travelers.  You can get 250 business cards for 20 minutes and $20 or less through Staples or another similar service (cheaper options online).  Things to include:  Your name, blog url, twitter url, e-mail, website, and if you can shorten it – the link to your Facebook profile.

Travel

Airfare – There’s a lot more to getting a great rate than just booking in advance. I’ve found that airfare tends to spike about 30 days before the departure date.  Also, conventional wisdom is to try and book on a Tuesday or Wednesday if at all possible – and in my experience this still holds true. If you’re flexible and looking for a great deal I suggest utilizing airfare search sites like Kayak.com. I’ve done very well by signing up for an account and running flexible date searches.  Don’t stop there though, most people check once – then book.  That’s a major oops (airfare typically fluctuates hundreds of dollars from day to day).  If you’ve got time, set up several searches to airports in the area/region you want to explore and for different dates, then sign up for their (free) daily e-mail updates for each. Once a day you’ll receive an e-mail with the current airfare and the $ change from the previous day.  Monitoring prices this way works well, but you need to be ready to book when you see a great deal.

Another thing to keep in mind is specials. Airlines are always operating specials of some sort or another.  Usually these are only so-so deals, but with a little research and patience you can usually find a fantastic deal. Sites like TravelZoo.com and Airfarewatchdog.com typically provide a good summary of current airfare specials.  It’s also important to note that you should not limit yourself to the airlines that immediately come to mind. A lot of travelers (especially North Americans) forget about the wealth of high quality foreign airlines. These airlines are almost always extremely safe, usually offer better service than domestic airlines and can be much cheaper.

Discount Airlines – Don’t forget your discount airlines. The quality is usually rough, and you’ve gotta do your research to make sure you don’t get stuck paying any number of random fees – but the price is usually right.  If you can book a day or two ahead discount airlines like EasyJet and RyanAir are typically cheaper and faster than long distance train rides.  Keep in mind they also lack the amazing cross country view that train and bus rides offer.  If you’re flying with a discount airline read up ahead of time.  They typically fly into secondary airports which can result in costly/timely commutes between the airport-actual city if you’re not prepared. For a complete list of budget airlines world wide check out whichbudget.com.

Rail – When available, travel by rail is an excellent option.  It is scenic, relatively comfortable and in western Europe, typically drops you off in the heart of the old city. Faster and more comfortable than bus travel, rail travel is typically also somewhat more expensive.  If you’re traveling to eastern Europe be aware that bus travel is probably a better option as countries like Greece and Croatia have poor rail infrastructure.   When buying rail tickets you typically have 3 options.  You can purchase online, in advance, or the day of.  Online and advanced tickets are typically significantly cheaper.  Also, most countries have regional trains that, while slower moving, are 2-3 times cheaper than the faster commuter trains. Once you purchase your ticket, be sure to validate it before getting on the train. In Italy, for example, tickets are good for several months. To assure that they can’t be used multiple times, you have to validate the ticket in the yellow machines readily available in the train station. If you are riding without a validated ticket, there are stiff fines.

Conventional travel wisdom is to use a rail pass – do your research.  Rail passes are no longer as good a deal as they once were – many countries (eg: Italy) charge seat reservation fees which can cost more than a lone ticket would.  That said, in countries like Germany where rail travel is significantly more expensive, a rail pass can save you a lot of money.  Another must explore site is seat61.com which has a lot of general information for those considering rail travel.

Bus – Far from the most comfortable way to travel, buses are a cheaper and still pleasant option.  It is not uncommon for long distance buses to have bathrooms and many are equipped with ceiling mounted T.V.s providing entertainment.  If you’ve got extra time or are traveling in eastern European countries, bus travel is a fantastic option and will give you a great view of local villages and rural countrysides.  The air conditioning can be a bit rough, but it’s also a great way to interact with and meet natives.

*Special thank you to Cody Paris for the ongoing suggestions and feedback he has contributed.

Have a question or tip of your own?  Please post it in comment form below.  Also, please note that I will be constantly adding to this list as new tips, tricks & information come to mind.

Prague Part 2, Vienna & Bratislava

Bit of time to kill before I catch my bus to Croatia, so hopefully I’ll get caught up! It’s brutal how easy it is to fall behind and I hate writing when things are not still fresh in my memory…but here goes!

Prague continued: The show and ballet I saw were both the highlights, but in general Prague is a very musical city. It was not unusual to find street performers which always livens up the experience. On the first day I explored the natural history museum. Quite a different experience than many of the others I’ve seen. The whole thing seemed stuck in time. The exhibits came in basically three different forms…the mineral exhibit, the early human artifact exhibits, and the stuffed animal exhibit. The early human exhibit was interesting, but fairly small. It consisted of a few old artifacts prior to and including the start of the bronze age and a bunch of bones. The mineral exhibit was large, but very different in feel as all of the gems were locked away in old wooden cases with viewing windows. It would not surprise me to learn that they dated back to at least the early 1900s. The stuffed animal exhibit was just that. Rooms and rooms of anything and everything they could kill and stuff…a very weird vibe to it, especially as some had not weathered well and as a result the various butchering cuts and stitches were becoming evident. The building itself however was gorgeous with a beautiful interior.

Night life – while I spent just about every night mixing and meeting people, I only spent two of the nights out at the main bars/night clubs. The first night I did a pub crawl. So far these have been a fantastic way to explore the city’s night life and meet other people. The crawl was lead by an odd American and his sister, and took us to 4 or 5 bars and clubs before ending at a night club. Both were friendly and the crowd on the crawl, despite being almost all guys, was a good group. We wandered the bars, hitting up some interesting ones, some dead ones, and some boring ones. At one point, while walking through the bottom levels of a club that was just starting to pick up, I encountered a group of friendly Nigerians selling weed and smoking it in the bottom part of the club. It struck me as really odd, especially since the people working at the club must have been aware of what was going on. Needless to say, I ended up back upstairs fairly quickly.

The second major evening out was my final one in Prague. I formed up with a couple traveling from England that were at the hostel and then set off to meet an Australian guy I had met in Frankfurt at a club recommended to me. To be honest, it was really bizarre. There were loads of beautiful girls on the subway and around parts of town, but at night in the bars and clubs they were nowhere to be seen and it was mostly tourists. When we arrived finally at the club recommended as a locals joint there was a massive line. I think we were the only 3 (4 once Brad joined us) foreigners in line. But, as we talked to the people around us it turned out the club was all inclusive so the door cover included unlimited drinks even though it cost a good bit more. We’d all hit up happy hour at our hostel and decided to check out another club instead – apparently one of the largest in Europe that was in the tourist district and a good 5 stories tall with different themed floors.

We set off for the club and after a brisk walk and quick tube jump we were there. The place was just starting to pick up. We did a quick walk through of all the floors and then because it was a bit brighter and completely ridiculous, ended up on the 3rd floor which was oldies with light up squares on the dance floor. There is nothing like a huge white dance floor with bands that lit up in different colors to the music. It was definitely fresh out of the movies. We grabbed a beer (the great thing about Prague was even at the club half a liter was only about 2 dollars US) and started dancing a bit. Before long others came out and joined us and we had stumbled into several others from the hostel including a big group of girls from the States of all places. We spent the next few hours dancing (during which I realized that the beer I had been ordering was 12%…ouch). It’s been a slow process, but I guess my ballroom stuff is finally starting to help me on the non-ballroom dance floor. Within about 15 minutes, I had two of the American girls repeatedly tell me how good I was and that they were intimidated. They would rotate intermittently throughout the night until the night club got so hot that I took my leave and headed out for air.

The Prague castle is interesting but was a bit disappointing. Overlooking the city it’s not a castle, even in the more Eastern Euro-German sense, it’s more a monstrosity with a wall stuck on top of a hill with large marshaling grounds and a cathedral in the middle. Still the view was beautiful.

On the day I caught the quartet in the small library that I loved I got out right around sunset and made my way down to the river. Luckily there was just enough cloud cover to make for a few fantastic minutes as the buildings and trees reflected on the river water and cast everything in a rosy hue.

The main Prague cathedral was pretty impressive with fresco and gold paint everywhere. They definitely were all about the gaudy look. The inner city itself was beautiful with a great mix of architectural styles. Many of the buildings had fantastic doors with a very old, medieval, almost castlesque feeling. It was also really interesting to see how many small courtyards there were and in many cases there were arches and small walkways between the streets creating a kind of interconnected maze. There is also a large astrological clock in Prague which draws a lot of tourists on the hour for a little animated show. The clock itself was beautiful…the show was dumb. It’s just a bunch of figures on a circular piece inside the clock. Two small doors open and they walk up to the window and look out as they revolve past.

It’s an odd thing how in Prague and Vienna to a lesser extent they often build right up to/around their cathedrals. They usually, but not always, still leave the public square part, but it can also be a ways away from the cathedral.

Vienna: Vienna is a very different city than Prague. Every bit as beautiful as Prague, if not more so. It still has the rural industrial feeling but the inner city is composed of large grass areas, squares, and ornate buildings. You can see the wealth that the rulers had and invested in the city in their massive palaces and buildings. While some of the buildings are gothic, most have been designed with greco-roman architecture in mind. In fact one of the main buildings (I believe it was the Parliament) is a massive building that was obviously based upon the Parthenon in the Acropolis though it also has distinctly Roman elements (two curved, sweeping walkways to the entrance). Located between the walkways is a huge statue of Athena with various figures at her feet. I believe it’s closely based on the statue of Athena that was originally located in the Parthenon. At each of the 4 corners of the building’s roof there are huge bronze chariots with horses in motion. They are elegant and beautiful.

Located in the heart of the city is the palatial area which now spreads between the city hall (a stunning gothic building) and the old palace which is now a set of classical reading rooms, modern library, set of museums and galleries. Between the two sets of buildings there is a huge park with gardens, statuary, another much smaller greek building, and large grass areas. Off to one side mirroring each other with fountain-filled gardens are two identical buildings which are now used as art and sculpture gardens. These buildings are massive and incredibly elegant.

Beyond that area are Vienna’s wandering streets. In the older parts of town each building is strikingly different though they are all based on the same uniform architectural style. Most of the facades have some sort of figure or scroll work supporting, surrounding, and adorning every window, corner, and door. On some of the buildings the null space is then painted with ornate images. The theaters and opera houses are exactly what you would expect and right in line with how i envisioned them. They fit right in with the rest of the Viennese theme.

While I would have liked to have seen a show like I did in Prague, many were expensive or playing odd pieces I didn’t have a desire to see. I did however attend an Opera at the old opera house. The ticket was 2 euro for standing space, which while a fun thing for a quick peak at the house and the show, was definitely NOT the way to see the opera. Despite enjoying the show, at the first intermission I took my leave, my legs were killing me, it was hot, the view was poor and the acoustics were marginal (we were located all the way at the back in the top). While not as small or ornate as the opera house in Prague it was definitely very impressive.

I met an Englishman who was killing some time after having plans fall through. He was staying at the hostel, but had lived in an Austrian town a bit outside of Vienna for a while a bit back. On the day I’d set aside to tour the city, he was eager to join me, and offered to play tour guide. Apparently, he’s also a fairly proficient musician (level 8 cert) and about to start a masters program in linguistics. As we wandered the city he had all sorts of fun tidbits to share. In addition to covering the bits I mentioned above, we also walked through a large outdoor market street which runs all week long. While there we were passing a wine shop selling (I believe it’s called Vino?) and we stopped for a drink as he introduced me to it. Made from the thicker parts of the wine that they sift off it is apparently only available a few times a year and because of how it ferments cannot really be exported or sold elsewhere. I tried a red, he had a white – it was a potent wine, but also had a champagne feel to it. Much thicker than wine, it would settle if you left it sitting for more than a minute or two. It had a much sweeter and juicier element as well. All around a very pleasant drink.

Later, again ready to rest our feet after hours of walking, we made our way to a small dingy coffee shop he had found during his time in Vienna. The sign looked like it was straight from the 40s and the interior was dark, musky and brown. The walls had mismatched wallpaper, which definitely came from a wide variety of mixed fashion styles and decades. (It reminded me my childhood when my grandparents would take me to the old Brown Derby for hot chocolate. This place though was much older and grungier.) In some places the wallpaper had peeled off…in others it looked as though it had burned and in others people had written all over it. The chairs and tables were piled into the place and the lighting was marginal. The place was fantastic! We made our way to a corner and ordered our coffee and rested our feet. I felt as though I should be madly writing an opera, book, or poetry.

Yesterday I decided to check out Bratislava (some of you may remember it from Euro trip) – located about 50 k (or miles I’m not sure) from Vienna. It is a 10 Euro round trip bus ride and takes about an hour and a half. Lewis (the guy I’d toured Vienna with), Sarah (A kiwi girl I bumped into in Prague and saw again here in Vienna) and I were preparing to set out when we also picked up another American (his name escapes me at the moment). We set off, caught the bus and were in Bratislava by noon with open minds and high hopes. I’d heard that it was worth a visit but not worth an overnight stay. That was an exaggeration. The city itself is an industrial mess with a skyline that is interesting only because of the number of smoke stacks. It has cheap multi-story residential buildings being built and smog. The old city itself has one or two beautiful buildings. The rest are built in a very simple, very plain architectural style that was generally bland and boring. Even the castle perched up above the town on the hill reminded me more of a Holiday Inn than a castle. We explored the city for 2 hours or so, then looking for more to see and feeling like there had to be something we were missing started looking at postcards…unfortunately, everything on the postcards we’d seen. The only really cool thing was a set of bronze statues they have built on/into the streets. One is a camera man peaking around a corner, another is a classicaly dressed figure leaning on a bench, and the third is a chubby construction worker up to his shoulders in a manhole leaning out.

Hungry and done with the city we looked for a restaurant. We’d each converted between 5-15 euro into the regional currency. For me that meant my 10 Euro got me 330 or so SK dollars. Initially we’d expected to find keepsakes, have to pay for museums etc. No such luck. Not wanting to take the hit transferring it back we looked for a restaurant with what might be regional food willing to pay a bit more than usual to get rid of the notes. The place we found must have been an old monastery or wine cellar. It was a a maze of small rooms that wound down into the earth with small domed ceilings, brick walls, and odd paintings on the walls. We settled in, ordered, then waited eagerly for food…which unfortunately ended up being nothing like what we ordered. The waiter completely messed up two of the 4 orders (I think he just didn’t want to cook the pork knuckle i was going to try) bringing us instead plates of spaetzel with goat cheese, and another with sauerkraut and bacon instead of the goat cheese. Not having the time to wait 40 minutes more for them to correct the order we made do and ate hungrily. After finishing the meal we still had some time to kill and a few SK left. Somehow we found an old lady selling a bottle of Bratislavian mead (of all things) and decided to try it. We chipped in for the 150 SK we needed for it, got 4 cups and headed down to the river (Danube i think) where we sat around waiting for our bus, reflecting on how shitty a town it was and commenting on how odd the mead was. I guess at least now I can say i’ve been there, and it only cost me 20 Euro.

Next stop Croatia. Catching the 6 o’clock bus this evening. Wish me luck!

Prague

Unfortunately, the computers in this hostel are located in the bar area…soo we’ll see how much I get written before I get interrupted and/or can’t focus any more. There are people starting to show up so I imagine it will get fairly rowdy before long.

First – in general. Prague was a very different experience then the other cities I’ve visited. In part due to the Eastern European influence and in part due to the general spirit of the city itself. The elder Czech generations I saw tended to be very hearty looking. You could tell by looking at them that many had worked hard throughout their lives under rugged conditions. In particular I noticed it in a lot of their hands. Both men and women often had rugged, calloused hands with finger nails that showed an existence filled with heavy use and constant wear. The younger generations shared that look to a lesser degree, though as I’d commented previously many of the Czech girls on the subway were quite attractive. Boots seem to be a huge Euro fashion thing currently, especially in Eastern Europe so seemingly every third young girl-woman was dressed in some form of mid-shin or knee-high, high-heeled boot. The locals in general were very friendly and warm. Though there was a huge difference between the locals outside the tourist areas and those within.

The locals located within the tourist sections and working at tourist locals were some of the rudest people I’ve encountered so far on my trip. Brusque, devoid of patience and just generally rude. It was surprising, as one would think they of all people would be polite with their livelihood depending on tourist dollars. From many of them I got the vibe that they didn’t like the direction that tourism had taken the city and in part blamed the tourists for visiting.

Many people talk about Prague as a beautiful city. Which it definitely is, though I don’t feel that it’s as beautiful as everyone claims. Rather, I would say it’s an interesting city with it’s own rich flavors. The river itself, is without question beautiful, as are the old buildings but the skyline is mixed with more modern buildings. Many of which are high rise residential buildings from the 60s, 70s and 80s. From an architectural standpoint I think the two most noteworthy parts of Prague are the monument roofs with their spires and clean lines and the statuary located on the older buildings. Many of the older buildings have incredible figures and statuary over the windows, surrounding the doors, and set at random on the buildings. These figures are typically carved in the very stoic, hard, almost skeletal style that I’ve always associated with the old Soviet Union. They also bring to mind elements of the Chrysler building in NY and that time period. I found them fascinating and beautiful. They have so much emotion which depending on your mood and perhaps the state of the building can come across as either great stoic pride as a modern Atlas steadfast in his vigil while he gladly holds up the world, or alternately as worn and haggard faces that have lived hard lives with a penetrating sadness to them that makes you pity their stone hearts.

Another thing I heard while gearing up for Prague was that it was cheap. Luckily that was definitely the case. Though movies such as Eurotrip etc. exaggerate things a bit, there is a massive difference between the Euro and the Czech Krunar. At about 20 K per dollar a beer or coke typically cost between 15 and 25 K. I could order a full plate of chinese food (rice, chicken, the works – just no drink) or goulash, biscuits and meat for 69 K or so that would leave me stuffed. Though these prices required I leave the tourist section and stray into the city.

Food – as long as it’s not dairy-I’ll eat most things. I usually try and draw the line at eyes, brain or pieces of an animal’s sexual anatomy but depending on my mood and how good it smells I try and keep an open mind. As a result if I’m feeling up to it I’ll ask the waiter or waitress to surprise me with something regional that they think iI should try. It almost always works out and doing it over the years I’ve been served everything from tripe to steak and eggs. I charged my waiter/ress with my meal twice while in Prague and ordered things at random off the menu 4 times. The local Czech food that I ended up with was delicious. One of the meals was breaded chicken, much like a chicken-fried steak, but with real slices of chicken breast and a very different/thick batter served with dumplings and gravy. One of the other meals was gulash- a slice of ham, a slice of beef, and two huge sliced dumplings. Both were delicious. One of the other more interesting things was a large fried potato cake (a huge latka?) with chicken bits in it. It was about a foot long and about 4 inches wide. Regardless of what I ate, be it Chinese (seems to be the Czech version of Europe’s kebab shops or US Mexican), Czech, or just general brats, burgers and random food, it was almost all delicious.

I spent the first two nights of my stay at a hostel a bit outside of town. The hostel was clean, had free internet and friendly people but lacked atmosphere. The common area was closed at 10 and the train ride into town was a pain. When my two nights there were up, i made my way into the heart of town and booked into the Clown and Bard. A boisterous social hostel with a huge 30 plus person dorm room, and then 2 and 5 bed rooms. The hostel had an on site bar, fun playful atmosphere, and a backpacker oriented mentality. The walls of the room were covered in writing, some were quotes, some were profanity, some were insults and some were humorous. Other bits of bedroom graffiti included a giant doodle of Bevis and Butthead, other strange pictures, and a huge face. Despite the graffiti however, the hostel, sheets, and room were all clean.

The arts: I’d been told that Prague was a very musical city so, eager to take advantage of the exchange rate and wide musical selection I saw several shows. In Prague almost all of the cathedrals & monasteries put on small, medium-sized classical shows. Some are basic with just a few violins and cellos, others use organs, others use small symphonies.

The old Opera House: Romeo and Juliet. It had been a long time since I’d seen a ballet as when the opportunity arises I usually choose to see the symphony or opera instead. As I walked around the city I saw signs for Romeo and Juliet at the old opera house. Initially thinking they might have turned it into an opera-and that it would be awesome to see something in the old opera house-I looked into tickets and found decent balcony seats for a fair price. As I purchased the tickets I learned it was in fact a ballet. I decided to push ahead and give it a go (I had missed all of the actual opera shows in my time window).

The opera house itself was gorgeous. A small round classical building with a beautifully fresco’d roof-the house itself was a slightly different layout than I was familiar with. It had group-general seating in a long swatch down the middle on the floor level, which carried up on to the 2nd and 3rd balconies. The swatch though was only the area straight out from the stage, with all of the side area, except for that up on the 3rd story, being filled by small 6 person areas. The walls and ceiling were all coated in golden figures and the whole room while lit seemed to glow.

Now, as I mentioned earlier ballet isn’t my favorite thing in the world but, the shows I have seen I enjoyed. While this one was not necessarily an exception it was a huge disappointment. It wasn’t until the last 1/3 of the show that I felt like I was actually enjoying it and that the performers got on cue. The set was very plain, with a number of wooden constructions that would have looked a lot more impressive with a little paint. To make it more annoying one of the larger ones had a piece of the paneling coming loose which could have easily been fixed with a few screws. The performers themselves, while obviously skilled, seemed off. In many of the group movements there were visible differences between dancers and (perhaps due to my ballroom background?) I noticed that many seemed to have unstable footing and be constantly adjusting. Also, a number of the moves seemed ballroomesque and to be honest I’d rather see the ballroom version. It’s possible I just was overly critical and/or don’t understand ballet, but I think a large part of the sync and performance quality came from nervousness. At the end of the performance they brought an old lady on stage and introduced her. Apparently she was the original Juliet that had launched the performance years ago. Given her presence…it wouldn’t surprise me if their nerves had thrown the troupe off. To top the experience off I’m pretty sure one of the main dancers was REALLY excited to be performing for 5 or so minutes before he was killed off, though from the look of things it was a whole different type of performance he was hoping for. Watching a bunch of guys leap around in skin tight tights was bad enough…the added bit just generally made the whole experience a bit traumatizing. So, Romeo and Juliet – 2 of 5 stars.

Two nights later I decided to try one of the many shows held around town. I purchased my ticket and then killed some time before making my way to try and locate the building. When I followed the map it took me down a main street, to a side street where an attendant was directing people in through a small doorway. Nowhere to be seen was the classical cathedral or small church I’d been expecting. My annoyance went through the roof as I made my way up a flight of winding stairs and was met by an attendant who took my ticket and seated me in a small room with a fresco’d ceiling, bout 50 chairs, a small stage, and 4 seats for the musicians. Ready to demand a refund, I forced myself to sit tight and give it a chance. The room itself was maybe 75 feet long and the seat I chose was about 5 rows back located directly under the center of the domed fresco’d roof. The fresco was of a multi-story library with teachers, books, railings, and objects arrayed above us. While not captivating it was beautifully painted and with the curve of the dome felt 3 dimensional. About 15 people in total filed in and then the musicians entered through the same door we’d all come in, as you can imagine this added to my annoyance. They sat down on the stage and I found myself looking at 3 violinists and a cellist. They paused and then began to play. Within the first 3 notes I knew I’d been wrong and that the show would be well worth the money. Because of the acoustics and my proximity to the performers the power of the music was incredible. Especially due to my location directly under the middle of the dome. Violin is easily one of my favorite instruments, if not my favorite and this show made left me breathless. They played a number of famous pieces including Canon, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and about 10 other pieces whose names escape me right now. Each one was even more impressive than the last. The hour plus that the show ran, passed in a heartbeat. Where the ballet was a huge disappointment, this show blew even my initial expectations out of the water. Easily a 5 out of 5.

Lot more to share about Prague but the bar is getting too rowdy and I can’t focus any more, so for now. Goodnight!