08 June 2010


Back on May 8th I traveled together with three Czech girls to the eastern Bavarian city of Passau. It was one of the last major Bavarian cities that I had yet to visit. In our brief time there we strolled on the old town's cobblestone lanes and past its Baroque architecture. There aren't really any worthwhile tales to pass along, but here are some photographs from the day. The last of the following images offers a glimpse inside the St. Stephan's Cathedral.

Passau is known as the Three Rivers City because of it location at the confluence of three rivers, the Danube, Inn, and Ilz. The old town rests on a peninsula formed by the Danube on one side and the Inn on the other. In order to get a better look of this nearly water-surrounded city, we hiked up to the Veste Oberhaus, an aged fortress perched over the city on the banks of the Inn and Ilz Rivers.

The next post on a trip I took through central Germany should offer a bit more content compared to this one.

07 June 2010

Bohemian Travels

The weekend before my cruise on the Rhine I traveled to the southwestern portion of the Czech Republic, part of a larger Czech region known as Bohemia. My fellow travelers on the trip were three young ladies studying abroad in Eichstätt: Brittney from the U.S.A., Cinzia from Italy, and Eliska from the Czech Republic, who proved a very helpful guide in her home country.

We started our tour with a stay in the Austrian city of Linz, located south of the border with the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, rain marked most our visit in the city. Though water-logged, we did our best to enjoy ourselves.

On the morning of our trip's second day we rode the rails into Czech territory. We changed trains in the city of České Budějovice, or, in its English name, Budweis. The name should be familiar for most Americans, as this city is the birthplace of the original Budweiser beer. The Czech Budweiser company had been brewing for centuries before its American counterpart filled its first bottle and searched for a prestigious beer name to call their product. Supposedly the legal disputes between the two breweries continue.

From Budweis we traveled on to the town of Český Krumlov, which is a beautifully preserved community nestled on a sharp bend of the Vlatava River and looked over by an impressive castle complex. Below are some views of the charming town.

On our walk through the castle complex we discovered that impaling oneself on the castle fence was apparently not permitted.

At the end of the afternoon in Krumlov, we headed to the small city of Písek, Eliska's hometown. Our Czech friend let us into her home and showed us around the community where she grew up. Písek's main claim to fame is that the city is home to the oldest bridge in the Czech Republic (built around 1300), pictured in the first photograph below. The second image presents a view from the bridge at night.

On our third day we took a day trip to the nearby city of Tabor. There's not much to write about the city, at least from our brief stay there, but it did provide some scenic views. Contrary to how it looks in the last picture below, the girls are actually not arguing with each other.

Of course a visit to a foreign culture was not without its new foods. Czech cuisine mainly consists of meat, potatoes, dumplings, and beer, but the Czechs have developed an amazing number of various dishes with these few ingredients. The first photograph below shows one example, neck of pork with mustard, roasted potatoes, bread, and spicy peppers. This tasted alright, although not too unusual. To satisfy my craveing for something truly out-of-the-ordinary, another night I ordered a side dish of something guaranteed to make some readers cringe in disgust. According to Eliska this dish does not appear on menus, but local restaurants can often provide it by request. In the second image below you can see the prepared dish: a pair of fried bull testicles accompanied with a lemon wedge. The edible masculinity tasted, almost disappointingly, like pork, and its texture was not unlike any other fillet of beef. I'd say the challenge here is simply with accepting what it is that's sitting on the plate.

On the fourth day of our trip we took a long train ride back home to Germany. The most excitement of the day came shortly after crossing the border. Although I could not believe it myself, I had realized on the first day of our trip that I had forgotten my passport in Eichstätt. The border crossing into Austria and the Czech Republic had gone smoothly, and I had hoped for similar conditions for our return to Germany. I had thought I was in the clear until a pair of German authorities arrived at the door of our train cabin and asked for our passports.

All I could give them was a photocopy of my passport and my driver's license. The first officer's reaction was, unsurprisingly, "What's this?" I explained to the men my story and after some private deliberation in the train corridor they asked if I would be okay with only a verbal warning. I found the question curious, as if my conscience would demand a stronger penalty for my forgetfulness, and for a split second I considered answering "no" only to see what would happen. Of course I said that I accepted their offer of a verbal warning, the officers left, and our train ride progressed uneventfully toward Eichstätt.

Aside from this potential visit in a German detainment room, our long weekend spent mostly in the Czech Republic made for a fun time. Then again, in a country where a bottle of good-quality beer costs less than water at around 50 U.S. cents, one would expect the locals to be familiar with fun times.

31 May 2010

Cruise on the Romantic Rhine

Looks like I've got a lot of catching up to do. There have been many a trips taken that remain uncovered here, spanning over multiple months. To try to bring things up-to-date, for this post and the next several ones I'll keep my words to a minimum and mostly let the photographs do the talking. I'll start with my most recent trip and work backwards.

Last weekend I headed the Rhine River in western Germany. About 40 miles of the middle portion of the river are famous for there romantic scenery of steep, terraced vineyards, slate-roofed villages, and crumbling castles. For these reasons this section of the river has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ferries and tourist boats ply the waters of this section as often as Medieval ruins appear around the river bend here. I traveled by train to the small city of Bingen and from there switched to a boat sailing upriver. Here are some views of the route until I disembarked in the small town of Bacharach.

On Saturday night I slept in Bacharach, a scenic small town of only 2,000 people. More specifically said, I rested my head that night in a castle-turned-hostel that overlooks the river from a perch above the town. Bacharach offers several attractive example of cross-timbered architecture and cobblestone lanes. The last image below provides a view of my Medieval lodging.

With Sunday morning I boarded another northbound boat. For this segment of the trip castles crowned seemingly every major bluff along the river, and even one on an island in the middle of the waterway. I rode the boat until the village of St. Goarshausen, where I paid a visit to the Loreley.

Accoding to local lore, the Loreley was a beautiful siren who sat on the banks of the river at its narrowest point and lured sailors to the rocky shallows and thereby their death with her sweet singing. The legend actually originates from a poem written in the 1800s but in its relatively brief existence has gained the allure of a much older story. The precipitous river bank pictured above is named the Loreley and is the spot where the femme fatale would, following the legend, sing to the passing ships. A, shall we say, well-proportioned statue depicting the Loreley rests at the base of the rocky bluff today. After viewing the statue I hiked up the Loreley rock for a panoramic view of the river.

From St. Goarshausen my last section of the river cruise took me to the city of Koblenz, where the Mosel River converges with the Rhine. Below is a last shot from the river and also one of the so-called Deutsches Eck (German Corner) in Koblenz, which celebrates the unification of the German states under Kaiser Wilhelm I, and, unfortunately, was under renovation at the time of my visit. At the Eck a flag flies for each of the 16 contemporary German federal states.

From Koblenz I decided to cut my trip short, mostly because the local hostel was closed due to remodeling, and took a train back to Eichstätt.

One trip covered, only a handful more to go.

05 April 2010


On March 18th I arrived in Norway and, more specifically, the capital city of Oslo. My stay would only last two days, much longer and I think I may have gone broke in this expensive city.

Due to the intertwined histories of Norway, Iceland, and Denmark and my previous few posts, you should already be slightly familiar with the background of Norway, but here's some additional information. Like Iceland, Norway didn't separate from Denmark until the 20th century when it gained independence in 1905. Since then the country has developed an advanced economy and one of the world's highest standards of living. Norway has abstained from joining the European Union, and as in Denmark and Iceland I was missing the euro. The country's population stands below five million, and Oslo itself claims around half a million residents.

After checking into my hostel on Thursday I moved quickly to take advantage of my limited time in the city. I roamed around the city hall, not always sure if the rooms were meant for public access or not, and viewed the spacious hall where the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony annually takes place. From the city hall I moved to the rest of the city center. A large regal building from the top of a hill and at the end of an avenue beckoned me.

The building turned out to be the Royal Palace, the residence of the Norwegian royalty. When Norway gained its independence the nation chose to keep its constitutional monarchy, though today the royal head of state has become more ceremonial. At the palace, pictured again below, I caught the changing of the guard ceremony.

From its setting upon the hill the palace commanded a nice view over the city.

I finished the night with a visit to the National Gallery. Works from various Norwegian artists were on display. Several presented colorful depictions of the country's natural landscape and of traditional Norse mythology, including giant trolls stumbling through forests and over mountains. The highlight though was a collection of paintings from Edvard Munch, including his well-known, The Scream.

I started the next day with a visit to the Viking Ship Museum. When three Viking ships were unearthed in ceremonial burial mounds, two of them excellently preserved, a museum was built to house them and the accompanying relics. After seeing the ships, immense considering their origin from ten centuries ago, I could better understand how the sight of these vessels approaching on the waves would frighten a Medieval coastal village. As a point of size reference, be sure to notice the man walking to the right of the ship in the following photo.

From the Viking Ship Museum I headed to the Fram Museum. The Fram was a ship from the early 2oth century used for three explorations in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Perhaps most famously, it was used by Roald Amundsen on his historic expedition to the South Pole. The ship's unique design prevented the hull from the breaking when the water froze; instead, the ship would simply be pushed up. The museum was built around the Fram, and visitors can walk through the ship's various decks.

From the Fram I went to see The Scream's siblings at the Munch Museum. In this museum dedicated to Norway's most famous painter were several works that provided some looks into the disturbed life that the artist led, such as Self-Portrait in Hell.

The last major stop of the day was the Vigeland Sculpture Park within Frogner Park, home to numerous sculptures and engravings presenting men and women of all ages in some bizarre poses.

That evening two Americans and a young Irish man from my hostel invited me to come along with them to a karaoke bar. Though I came with no intention of singing, after the others had already gone and the Irish man, Steven, added my name with his for the next song I felt inclined to give it one try. Steven and I soon found ourselves singing Blink 182's "All the Small Things" in front of a bunch of uninterested Norwegians.

The next morning I boarded a flight to Bodo, in northern Norway. I was in route to the Lofoten Islands, a quiet archipelago in Arctic Norway, and wanted to reach them as soon as possible. I arrived in Bodo too late to catch a connecting flight to the islands, but a ferry was to leave in a couple of hours. I had planned to first go to the town of Svolvaer, the largest in the Lofoten, but the information office in Bodo informed me that the world championship cod fishing tournament was currently taking place there and accommodation without a reservation would be difficult to obtain. I decided to be spontaneous by still catching the ferry but disembarking at the port of call prior to Svolvaer.

The ferry I traveled with was one of the Hurtigruten steamers. This line of ferries has been plying the coastal waters of Norway for more than a century, acting as the lifeline for many small villages and towns along the way. Along its north-south route the Hurtigruten travels through many of Norway's famous fjords in order to reach different ports. Because of this beautiful scenery the ferries have changed somewhat over time to also act as cruise ships for tourists merely wanting to enjoy the ride. As my case shows, though, the Hurtigruten still follow their original purpose of simply providing transport for individuals from point A to point B.

I arrived in the fishing village of Stamsund in the Lofoten around seven o'clock in the evening. The sun had set about a half-hour before and I had no idea of where to go. The village itself, or what there was of a village, seemed to stretch along only a couple of roads. I was starting doubt my decision to leave the ferry before Svolvaer. Coming across the only establishment that seemed open I entered and asked if there was any hostel, guesthouse, or hotel in the village. Not only did they tell me that a hostel was up the road a kilometer or so, but they also called to make sure that it was open. Assured that it was, I followed their directions over the snowy road.

At the hostel I encountered some very informal conditions. The owner of the place, who seemed to be an old fisherman who had possibly spent a few too many lonely nights out at sea, simply walked over from his house and opened the hostel door for me after I called him on a telephone outside the building. The check-in process consisted of the owner simply telling me that my bed was upstairs, pointing to the bathrooms and kitchen, and asking for the money. At least I had a place to sleep for the night.

Conditions improved though once I met the fellow travelers who were staying in my room. It was a group of five, three from Germany, one from Spain, and one from France. They were college students studying abroad in Norway and taking a short trip through the Lofoten. After I had settled in, they invited me to eat the dinner with them that they were about to prepare. Considering that whatever restaurants or stores there were in Stamsund were likely already closed and I had no food of my own, I couldn't refuse. They didn't want any money, but I made sure to compensate them by helping with the preparation of the meal and the following clean-up. In the next photo you can see the hostel building on the left in the light of the next day.

Already on the following morning I came across my next little problem. I wanted to travel by bus to Svolvaer, but on this day of the week, Sunday, no buses traveled out of Stamsund. Aware of my dilemma, the students offered me a ride to the next largest town where I could catch a bus. They had a rental car and were planning to drive through the town of Leknes anyway. Again, I couldn't say no. We left quickly after breakfast, but the six of us had a tight fit in the car.

They dropped me off in Leknes and I soon caught a bus to Svolvaer. The town is home to less than 5,000 people but is the largest community in the Lofoten. The fishing tournament had ended the previous day and the streets of Svolvaer did have a hallowed-out feel to them. Unfortunately, there was no hostel in town. The cheapest accommodation was a group of harborside guestrooms in a renovated fisherman's cabin. Below are some photos of the town, the second and third show why the Lofoten are often described as a place where the mountains meet the sea.

I have to say that my time in Svolvaer was actually a bit disappointing. While I didn't expect ideal weather conditions during my visit, it seems that a visit to the Lofoten in the summer would be far more worth the trip. Almost all attractions and activities in Svolvaer were closed for winter. I made due, however, by simply enjoying the beautiful scenery on walks around the town.

Two sights seemed plentiful no matter what the season. One was the traditional red fisherman cabins known as rorbu, as seen in the next picture. Every March schools of cod fish return to the Lofoten Islands and the local communities themselves begin to swarm with crowds of fishermen. This industry has taken place for centuries and remains the main economic activity of the Lofoten. A Norwegian king once ordered the construction of additional housing on the islands so that the seasonal workers could have a place to stay. This took the form of the rorbu, small cabins often standing directly next to or over the water. In recent times, the rorbu have been renovated and rented out to visitors in the summer or fully converted to guest accommodation.

A second sight typical in the Lofoten was the cod fish hung in the open-air to dry. Workers hang the fish on long wooden structures that resemble an Indian dwelling and that are the height of a two- or three-story building. The dried fish becomes stockfish, a popular food in Scandinavian cooking and also one exported to foreign markets. Up close, the fish don't smell as bad as one might expect.

After two nights in Svolvaer I began my long trip back to Germany. I boarded another Hurtigruten ferry in the late afternoon of my last day in the town. The ferry arrived in Bodo at two o'clock in the morning, but I woke up at about three with the sound of a cleaning lady tidying up the ship's empty bar. The ferry wouldn't cast off until four o'clock, and Bodo's airport wouldn't open until the same time either. I waited until a few minutes before four, and then walked off the ferry and to the airport. A couple hours later I boarded my flight to Oslo, connected to another flight for Munich, and finished the last portion of my return with a train ride home from the airport.

The sight that I had most wanted to see while in the Arctic, the Northern Lights, was a no-show. Crossing over from the Lofoten to Bodo I had my last opportunity to see the Lights, which I had looked for each previous night while in the Arctic, but I didn't have much luck. A photographer on the top deck of the ship pointed to some faint lines in the sky close to the northern horizon and said that these were the Lights, but, if he was right, they were too unspectacular to count as an actual sighting for me. As with any weather event, sometimes they occur and sometimes they don't.

Before I can be truly satisfied with Norway I'm afraid that I'll have to return someday. Though many of my travels have been out of the high season, I've never felt that I missed out or had any less of an experience because of this until my visit in this country. While I'm content with my stay in Oslo, there are still Norway's fjords and beautiful landscape that I feel I will need to see in some greener months of the year in order to better enjoy. Although as much of a drain as the country can be on one's wallet, if I ever go back, it won't be anytime soon.

With the tales from my Nordic travels concluded and a week of rest in Eichstätt behind me, I will soon set out on a short trip though central Germany. Look forward to that post in about a week's time.