Saturday, August 25, 2012

A few days in Munich and the great bus journey

Coming back to Munich after my trip to Amsterdam felt like coming home.  It was nice to be back where things and people were familiar.  I met Mario at the train station and surprised him with Ayran and sour gummies.  It was so great to see him again! It was HOT back in Munich so we went to the pool before cooking dinner and watching Alien 1 (NOT my idea).  It wasn't so bad though and really not scary - this coming from the girl who 110% doesn't do horror films.  Sunday we saw all of the critters in the Munich zoo, including the most ugly bearded pig.  You see, it was our goal to seek out the ugliest animal in the zoo because, well, we like ugly critters.  The zoo in Munich is really worth visiting.  You can easily spend the better part of a day there.  After the zoo we headed to the bank of the Isar river nearby.  In the evening we again cooked dinner, talked to Nastia for a few minutes on Skype, and watched The Great Outdoors! I have watched that movie already a hundred times in my childhood, so he of course also had to see it sooner or later.  As usual I laughed my head off and Mario also found it funny - Yay! Monday was my final day in Munich and we again went to the pool after walking in the center a short bit and realizing in such weather water is the only option.  In the evening I went to Unterhaching to visit the family one more time.  Regina met me at the door with a hug and "Chelsea I've missed you!!".  I had missed them too! We had dinner together and just hung out a bit before I headed back to the center.  It was sad to leave them, but that finally meeting provided some closure and I know I will see them again.  Back in the center we just relaxed because it was really hot in the apartment. It stormed during the night though and that brought the temperature down a little.
Tuesday morning was the sad goodbye.  We went by car to the bus station since Mario was also headed to home and waited for the bus to arrive.  After loading my luggage we waited together until the last moment and I hurried onto the bus.  After waving until we couldn't see each other anymore and then the tears began to fall.  I didn't want to make a fool of myself on a bus full of people I didn't know, so I held it in as much as a could. It wasn't easy though.  I was excited to be on the road to Ukraine, but there is also that small fear that accompanies the beginning of a journey.  I was leaving the city I had called home for over two months - what had become my comfort zone.  And, of course, it was also a goodbye to Mario, made only a little less sad knowing that it would be not quite two weeks apart.
And so the journey began! The 30 hour bus trip from Munich to Kiev! I realized once I got on the bus that, in my opinion, I had the best seat on the bus. I had a window seat next to a friendly babushka.  We were in the row after the second door of the bus, so instead of the usual folddownfromthechairinfrontofyou trays we had a long, wide, sturdy "table" in front of us.  That also meant no neighbors in front of us leaning their seats back and I could stretch my legs out straight until the table.  And when we made stops (we stopped every four hours to use the bathroom and stretch) I could zip out the door quickly and avoid a long bathroom line.  We crossed the border from Poland to Ukraine between 2 and 4 am (yes, it was a 2 hour ordeal) and were in Kiev by about 3 PM Wednesday. Crossing the border into Ukraine I was filled with an anxious excitement hard to explain.  Last summer in Ukraine I made so many good memories, which came flooding back as I caught sight of "Ukraine" written on the border station.   Everyone on the bus spoke Russian as a first language except me, but I was able to hold my own and chatted with my neighbor a bit as well as withe some girls closer to my age.  In general the trip went by quickly and wasn't too difficult.  I could tell that the attitude of the bus was "we're all in this together" and "we're going to make the best of this trip", as everyone was chatting, sharing food, watching movies and comedians together, and keeping the bus quiet when people were trying to sleep.  For some people I think such a trip would seem daunting, but I embraced it as just another adventure. For 75 euros I got much more than just a cheap ride to Kiev - I gained an experience I will never forget!

The long overdue account of Amsterdam adventures

Tuesday evening, August 14th, I flew from Munich to Amsterdam on a quick little direct flight.  To the center was quick and easy and I was relaxing for the night in the hostel in no time.  Wednesday I wore myself out exploring Amsterdam from dawn until dusk, visiting the Rijksmuseum (art), Amsterdam History Museum, and Anne Frank House.  Also during Wednesday I saw the well-known I AMSTERDAM tourist attraction and happened upon a free outdoor a capella concert in the evening! Thursday Danny, a dutch friend who I marched with in Blue Stars and haven't seen for 2 years came to the city! We spent the day exploring the city on foot, rehashing old Blue Stars moments, and catching up on each others' lives.  It's always nice to spend the day with an old friend! After Danny caught a train back home I took a nighttime canal boat tour and it was just lovely! I met a woman from Pennsylvania and a Russian-speaking girl from Azerbaijan.  Friday was my last full day in the Netherlands, so after checking out the hostel I took a bus out of Amsterdam a little over an hour to a place called Kinderdijk.  There stand 19 traditional windmills and lots of open space to walk around and enjoy nature a bit.  I spent about 4 hours there just walking around and enjoy nature before heading back into Amsterdam for a little bit.  At night I took the train to the airport and spent the night in the airport for my early-morning flight back to Munich.
So there is the Amsterdam trip in a nutshell! All in all it was super! Amsterdam is beautiful beyond what I imagined.  The hostel was also perfect! I would recommend it to anyone headed to Amsterdam. And no, I DID NOT visit any coffee shops while in Amsterdam - there is so much more to the city than that stupid stereotype.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ulm and Augsburg

Here in Bavaria one small and not so expensive ticket can turn any average day into an adventure.  Saturday morning we woke up and, having no other plans, decided that we would simply go to Hauptbahnhof, look at the train schedules, and have a spontaneous day. We selected a train with destination Ulm, hoping to also hit up Augsburg on the return journey.  We bought Russian and English newspapers to read on the train and were lucky enough to get seats both when we first got on the train and when we transferred to the part of the train actually going all the way to Ulm. Setting out from the central train station in Ulm our walk around the sitting was determined on street corner at a time, eventually leading us to a walk along the River Danube and back through the center to the train station. The city center of Ulm is marked by the Ulm Minster - a church with supposedly the highest steeple in the world. Another Ulm claim to fame is as the birthplace of Albert Einstein.  Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me, so you'll have to check out google images if you want to see pictures of Ulm and Augsburg.
Augsburg was another small, but cute Bavarian town and we spent a few hours exploring in the same unplanned way in which we always explore a new city. On the train back to Munich from Augsburg we were sitting near three very drunk British men, one of whom was down for the count and fast asleep not long after the train departed. They were friendly though and Mario amused them with impressions of the announcements on the London tube and some English slang.  Once back in Munich I headed back to Unterhaching and relaxed for a bit before an early bedtime.  I was one very sleepy Chelsea!

Friday, August 10, 2012

A weekend in Hilpoltstein

Friday morning we packed up our tent and camping gear one final time and set out for the final stretch of about 600 kilometers from Eastern Austria to Mario's hometown - Hilpoltstein, Germany. It just so happened to be the weekend of Burgfest, the major festival held in Hilpoltstein each year. There was no need to rush, so we took the trip easy, stopping occaisionally to stretch, make coffee, or use the restroom.  It rained a bit during the trip, but by the time we got to Hilpoltstein we had good weather all weekend.  Mario was happy to be back on the German autobahn, driving over 130 for the first time since Albania. Not far from the end of our trip we decided to make a little stop that involved full bladders and a cluster of trees near a place where cars can pull off the road and park for a bit.  When we got back to the car Mario discovered that the car key had fallen from the hole in his pocket. I hadn't taken my spare key with me, but he knew where it had to be because he had only walked one path there and back.  With the help of a truck driver the key was found and we were thankfully back on the road.  Once we arrived in Hilpoltstein I met Mario's mom and dad and his mom had dinner ready for us.  As part of the Burgfest tradition, the story of Countess Palatine Dorothea Maria and how she helped the people of Hilpoltstein several hundred years ago is retold and celebrated. One woman from the town is chosen to be the Countess each year and it just so happened that we could see her house from the garden where we were having dinner and watch as the horse drawn carriage arrived to take her into the city center.  We relaxed at the house for a bit before heading to the nighttime carnival/beer fest portion of Burgfest celebration around 22:30. At the Burgfest Mario ran into all sorts of friends and high school classmates and it was a fun, festive evening.
Saturday morning we woke up and had some breakfast before taking a walk to the city center which was already full of hustle and bustle.  There is a flee market of sorts where people can sell basically anything you would expect to see at an American yard sale/garage sale.  We wanted to also go up into the castle, but it wasn't yet opened so we returned back to the house to get the car and visit a friend of Mario's a little bit outside of Hilpoltstein. The reason for the visit was to have espresso from his famous coffee machine which he was so excited about and for which he payed ONLY 850 euros.  He's a really nice guy, but it was a little funny to see his complete obsession with this coffee machine and every tiny detail of making the perfect cup of coffee.  We also saw his very big and very loud drumset and blasted "gansta rap" on his stereo system.  His house has giant windows which overlook the countryside. After that little adventure we drove back to the house to get the bikes and ride to Rothsee. It was a good bike ride and we even had some lunch sitting by the lake.  Next on the agenda was the trip up to the top of the castle for some good views of Hilpoltstein and then  hanging out in the center, watching a comical race which involved "boats" shaped like pig troughs and the participants having to drink beer between the different steps of the race, walking around some more, and heading back home to relax for a bit in the early evening.  We arrived at the Burgfest a bit earlier on Saturday night, but then left for a few minutes so Mario could show me his high school (gymnasium) not far from where the Burgfest is held. We had another fun night at the Burgfest and I even met a guy from Kansas who has been working in Germany for about two years.  When we saw one friend who the night before had learned I was from America he felt the need to yell out "Hey! It's Miss America!" and proceed to tell the friends around him that I was Miss America.  Good thing it was dark because my face was probably turning a bit red haha!
Sunday morning we decided to take the bikes out again and road around Hilpoltstein and then into the woods a bit.  Now, I'm not really sure about the exact cause of the accident because it all happened so fast, but in short, my bike became a catapult and sent me flying into the air and straight onto my back.  Note to self - brake more when you're going down a hill on an offroad path! Next thing I knew Mario was leaning over me and everything hurt.  Thankfully all of my limbs were still functioning and although covered in scrapes, cuts, dirt, and leaves, I was able to get up after a few minutes of catching my breath and continue on  the bike trip.  About 5 kilometers or less from the house my vision started blacking out.  I was scared and just wanted to get back and lie down, so by the time we got back to the house I was a teary mess.  Mario got me some water and made sure I was okay and I laid down for about 45 minutes. Mario took such good care of me and I was so thankful to have him there.  I hate being the one who needs to be taken care of and always want to do things for myself, but when I, for example, crash a bike in the woods, it's nice to know that someone cares :) Anyhow, I was ready to take on the rest of the day after that rest so we went into town for the final event of the Burgfest which we would be present for - the parade! We got there a little early so we had some ice cream and waited for the parade to get going. It was a fun watching the parade and seeing all of the flag twirlers, marching bands, and adorable children.  Back at the house we gathered up our things, watched videos of fat cats on youtube, and were forced to eat cake with raspberries before taking the 17:30 train headed to Munich.  Typical of a Sunday evening, the train was packed so we sat on the floor for the train ride.  We had a good spot where we could stretch out our legs, so it actually wasn't any less comfortable than a regular seat.  At the central train station Mario and I parted ways for the first time in 11 days.  Thousands of kilometers and unforgettable memories packed into one whirlwind trip that will always hold a special place in my heart.  Sitting here writing this the entire trip seems so surreal. I am so incredibly thankful to have had my eyes opened to so many different places during this trip and to have experienced it all with my very favorite German.  I hope to be telling stories about "that time we camped our way across south eastern europe" for the rest of my life!

Crossing the river between Austria and Germany

My failed attempt at the Germany sign - it's the thought that counts I suppose

Bavarian flag

Fish and chips - almost!



Hilpoltstein from the castle

HIlpoltstein from the castle

On top of the castle

Flag of Hilpoltstein

Race at the town pond

the best of friends!


Burgfest 2012

Budapest and one final night of camping

Having slept hard and put Wednesday behind us, we woke up around eight on Thursday and went into Budapest with the car(the previous night we took the metro--yeah, camping close enough to the capital of Hungary to be able to go into the center by metro!) to do some more exploring.  We found a pretty good parking spot and I bought two oranges at a small cafe to break up the large bills we had into a whole bunch of coins for parking.  That is what happens when parking is 400 forints per hour (276 forints = 1 euro) and you need to pay for almost three hours of parking completely in coins! We were parked on the east bank "Pest", so we crossed over to the west bank "Buda" and climbed up to the Buda castle.  It was a pretty decent climb and it was a hot day, so by the time we reached the top we took some pictures and then enjoyed some ice cream and water. After the castle we walked around the city some more and decided to have lunch because we had a fair amount of Hungarian currency to use up.  We filled up our tummies at a small restaurant and were on the road to Austria.  We still had quite a bit of money in forints, so we made a stop before the boarder to fill up the tank, get some coffee, and stock up on some snacks for the road and for camping, but still didn't use up all of our currency. Guess we'll just have to go back to Hungary! We camped about 60 kilometers from Vienna in Eastern Austria at Neusiedler See  (Lake Neusiedl) at another crowded campground. It was still early in the day so we were able to enjoy some swimming and beach time before showering and heading out to get some groceries.  We cooked a good dinner for our final night of camping and reflected on the trip a bit before turning in for the eighth and final night of of camping.

Budapest, Hungary

Before our climb to the Buda Castle (you can't actually see the castle in this picture)

At the top!

Tourists in Budapest!

Walking through the city

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A day of laughter, tears, frustration, and challenges that we somehow manage to end with smiles

Wednesday was the earliest we woke up of any of the days of the trip and were showered and packed up by a little after 7.  We had some coffee and used the wifi at the campground cafe for a few minutes before driving into Belgrade to do some sightseeing.  Parking was an adventure because of the complicated process of using your cellphone to pay for parking that I still don't quite understand, but the parking attendant spoke some German and we eventually paid for our parking and hit the city.  We walked around the city center and then headed up to the "castle" for some great views of Belgrade and taking pictures in "dangerous" places (see the pictures below). On our way back through the city we got ice cream (of course) and were back to our car just as our parking time was up. Leaving Belgrade brought about our first bit of misfortune for the day, as Mario was signaled to pull the car over by a couple of Serbian police officers.  They told him that he had been speeding and that he would need to return to Belgrade to pay a fine.  By this point we were already about 20 minutes outside of Belgrade and going back was not really on our agenda, so Mario asked if he could pay the fine immediately to which the guard responded, "How much do you want to pay?". What?! Since when is that how things work? Oh wait, I forgot, we're in Eastern Europe.  Long story short, Mario ends up paying a little over 20 euros and we're on our way again.  I, of course, could hardly believe it when Mario came back to the car and told me this story.  We had decided on a whim to drive through Romania into Hungary instead of just through Serbia to see another country and because the time difference wasn't much.  We crossed the boarder from Serbia and were having a nice little uneventful drive through the Romanian countryside when no more than 15 kilometers from the boarder we're pulled over again.  Mario assured me that he had only been going maybe 5 over and that it probably would be no problem.  The officers asked for the standard identification and car documents and Mario handed them over.  He was then asked to show the officers his vignette.  We had purchased vignettes in Austria and Slovenia, but Romania has no autobahn and we hadn't been informed of any vignette at the boarder.  Long story short, they weren't going to hear and we had to pay a heavy fine.  We were both extremely upset by this because it was so completely unfair.  Is every individual who crosses the boarder into Romania just supposed to know this fact? The real kicker is that on the boarder with Hungary there are half a dozen signs and multiple places to even buy your vignette right at the boarder station. Basically we were fined for crossing the boarder at the "wrong" place where they don't inform you of all the rules.  Neither one of us was at fault, but it was still the most frustrating and upsetting thing that happened during the trip and the police officers were far from kind or even polite. After several kilometers of tense, frustrated, upset silence Mario pulled off the road in Hungary and we both just let it all out.  The anger, tears, and "why?!?" had to be let out if we were to have any hope of enjoying the rest of trip.  By the time we got to our campsite in Hungary our moods had been lifted a bit and night views of Budapest were enough to put a smile on my face for at least a bit of the evening. I was physically and emotionally drained by the time we got back to camp and the ground might as well have been a feather-bed and our tent a five star hotel as I was sleeping hard in no time.   Today was one of those days that as a traveler you dread, but perhaps I've gotten my bad travel experience out of the way for a while.
Belgrade, Serbia

Pedestrian path in Belgrade

Modern art ;)

Getting ready to go up up up


Risking my life in Belgrade, Serbia ;)

After using the auto-timer on my camera to take this picture a Serbian guard approached us to tell us that walking their was forbidden.  After he learned that we were taking a photo, he said it was fine, as long as we were just taking a picture there.  hmmm, well, at least he wasn't upset...

Another view of Belgrade

Happy in Belgrade and a Serbian flag in the background

Boarder station

Goodbye Serbia

First views of Romania

Short stop in Hungary to get Hungarian currency and something to eat

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