22 June 2009

Bryan's Visit

From May 13 to May 27 I had the pleasure of hosting another visitor: my friend Bryan from America. The trip was his first time to Europe and, hopefully, not one that he'll soon forget. During the first week or so we stayed mostly in Eichstätt. After all, for someone's first European experience even this small German town can be a place of wonder and awe. In the second we did of course get some traveling in.

On the second night of his visit, we attended a party hosted by the journalism department of the university. As seen below, partiers were requested to dress more formal than casual.

The following weekend we took a day trip to Nuremberg. Along with walking around the old town, seeing the Nazi relics at the former parade grounds, and roaming the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, we also visited the dank and antiquated dungeon under Nuremberg's city hall. Below, Bryan tests one of the aged restraining clamps.

In the next week, Thursday was a holiday, which meant that I would have a week off. We set to work planning a last-minute trip. After discussing our potential destinations, we decided on an itinerary. The first stop would be Prague, Czech Republic.

With eager feet, we purchased bus tickets online for the same night of our planning. Then our problems began. The website from which we purchased the first set of bus tickets wouldn't allow us to buy those we needed from Prague to our second destination, Berlin. However, Byran had already found and reserved hostel beds for us in that second city. With time running out, we shrugged this issue aside and returned to my apartment to pack. We left Eichstätt between nine and ten o'clock at night on a train to Nuremberg. Once in that larger city we sought out the bus station.

Signs led us to a desolate loop drive that was little more than a dead end. After a search for signs of our bus company, I approached an older couple sitting on a bench, the only other individuals at the station. They were Czech, but fortunately spoke German as well. Bryan and I were relieved that they too were waiting for the same bus, but less so by the fact that they too weren't sure exactly where to board. As the minutes ticked by, more people for the same bus showed up. A litte after midnight on this early Wednesday morning, the yellow coach bus arrived and we left Nuremberg behind.

Four and an half hours and little sleep later, we reached Prague. The sun was startlingly already bright, the surroundings reminded me of typical Eastern Europe, and we stood in a crumbling yet glorified parking lot. Our priorities were clear: withdraw Czech crowns from an ATM, buy tickets for that night's bus to Berlin, store our luggage, and then enjoy this capital city. The ATM was found less than a block away and underground in a subway station; the ticket counter stood back in the parking lot. The agent at the desk provided us with a lovely welcome to Prague, first telling us that she couldn't speak English, then telling me to "hurry up" as I tried to explain anyway the tickets that we wanted, and last abruptly sliding my passport back to me once I announced that we had too little cash on hand to buy the tickets. After returning to the underground ATM we were back in the same position. When the tickets were finally in our hands the agent thanked us and a glimmer of a smile moved across her face, though I assume it was revealing more her happiness of no longer having to deal with us and less of any pleasure she may have felt with assisting us.

With our luggage in safe-enough-keeping, we started to explore the city. By the time we reached the Old Town Square it wasn't even 7 AM. Hardly a soul animated what is normally the bustling hub of this increasingly touristed city. We found the same conditions on the city's famous Charles Bridge, a pedestrian river crossing dating to the 14th century and graced with dozens of statues. The three next photographs show views from and of the bridge. In the first you can see the Prague Castle and Cathedral rising in the background.

Having crossed the bridge, we made our way to the castle. Unfortunately, the entire complex, a number of fortresses, chapels, museums, and royal residences sitting on top of a hill overlooking much of the city, was closed due to "technical difficulties." Not sure if this meant that a door wouldn't open or perhaps something else, we walked back down the hill and looked for anything to keep us busy. At eleven in morning we had seen most of the city's main sights that we could see. Fatigue was setting in, and we still had more than twelves before our bus left for Berlin.

For lunch we ate at a street-side cafe. My Czech meal of yeast dumplings and beef is pictured below.

We needed rest, and we needed a comfortable place to rest. This drove us to a park full of sunbathers and picnickers lounging on a hill from where one could view much of Prague. Sitting and lying on our grassy cushion, we allowed a few hours to lazily pass by. Here are a couple views from our hill.

We eventually strolled back over the Charles Bridge, which the tourists had now swarmed to, and into the old town.

We managed to find some other sights before having dinner on Old Town Square. Here are a couple views from the square.

Tired but ready to move on, we walked back to the bus station and spent the last couple hours waiting for our ride. We departed from Prague close to midnight and arrived in Berlin at about five in the morning. Finding our hostel, we took a few hours to nap before heading out into the metropolis around noon.

This was my third time in Berlin, but new attractions were found and many old ones enjoyably revisited. In the first following photograph you can see the iconic Brandenburg Gate. During my last visit to Germany's capital, about two years ago, the new American embassy was still under construction directly next to the Gate. Now it is open, and many Berliners are less than happy with the architectual design of the building located so close to such a symbolic landmark of Berlin and Germany itself. Perhaps like most new things, though, it simply takes getting used to.

South of the Brandenburg Gate and in a pocket of land that has somehow missed the substantial new development and construction only blocks away in every direction lies a simple-looking parking lot, seen below. The earth under this asphalt once contained the bunker where Hitler spent the final days of the war and his life. What was left after the initial assualts was filled in with dirt and deteriorated more and more as the decades past, until the late 1980s when the East German government destroyed what was left. Only within the last few years has the site's historical background even been publicly acknowledged with an informative sign on the sidewalk. Previously but still to a degree, the city government was too weary about the prospect of the site turning into a pilgrimage destination for Neo-Nazis. The parking lot remains absent on tourist maps of Berlin.

Go another couple blocks south and one reaches Potsdamer Platz, the new bustling center of Berlin. On ground that was a no man's land when the wall still stood, sparkling highrises, retail centers, and entertainment meccas have sprung up.

For dinner we ate the Sony Center, located in Potsdamer Platz. The next two pictures show some views from the central court with its massive and color-changing canopy.

I orderd a Berlin specialty, Eisbein. The meal consists of a boiled pork knuckle, steamed potatos, sauerkraut, and a puree of green peas. Take my word that it tastes better than it looks.

On the day before we left the city, we strolled through Berlin's Tiergarten Park. The main street was closed in preparation for the following day's celebration of the Federal Republic of Germany's 60th anniversary. The timeline you see below displayed the most significant events in the country's history since then.

Near the park and the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building, we came across the home and office for the German Chancellor, seen in the first following picture. In the vicinity were several other government buildings, picture next, which were constructed since the reunification of the country.

One other highlight from Berlin was another food item native to the city: currywurst. We tried the version from reportedly the best vendor, located under an elevated rail line. The simple dish includes pork sausage covered in a curry-ketchup sauce and french fries. The end product is a tasty portion of junk food.

Leaving Berlin, we headed to Dresden and spent one night in the city. Famed for the horrendous carpet bombings of the city toward the end of World War II, Dresden offers far more history and items worthy of attention. At a time in the past the city was known as the Florence of the North due to its wealth of art and culture. Much of that is now on display in the painfully rebuilt old town of the city center. A view of the city from the banks of the river Elbe is below.

As said, the grand bulidings of Dresden's classical past have been reconstructed. The first photo below shows a staircase leading to the riverside promenade. In the second image rises the Frauenkirche. Of all the post-war revivals and reconstructions, Dresdeners are most proud of this one. Pieced back together with as much rubble from the original as possible, the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, has been wonderfully restored and was reconsecrated in late 2005. A unique design, the church is not square or rectangle in its basic shape, but appears more hexagonal.

The entrance hall for the museums displaying the treasures of the former royal vaults is actually a roofed former courtyard.

The next photograph provides a glimpse of the Zwinger, a large palace surrounding wide manicured grounds.

A little outside the city is Volkwagen's Glass Factory, so called because of the glass walls. Visitors can see the production line for VW's top models through a tour or, likewise, by simply walking around the building and watching through the windows.

As the evening drew nearer, we passed back through the old town on the way to our hostel. Here are some early night views, including the Frauenkirche again and a long wall of decorative porcelain tiles.

The next day, a Sunday, we rode a train out of Dresden and found ourselves back in Eichstätt by the late afternoon. On Monday, after I finished my classes, we relaxed for Bryan's final day in this Bavarian town. Activities including resting on a newly built deck on the Altmühl River with a couple drinks in hand.

For the following Tuesday, the last full day of Bryan's trip, we headed to Munich to spend most his last hours there. One of the requisite sights was the city's English Gardens park, home to beer gardens, sunbathing, surfing, and, as you can see, swimming.

In this shot you see the building of Munich's most visited indoor public pools, situated on the Isar River.

Once an afternoon thunderstorm had passed through and we had found a light snack in a typical Munich beerhall, we returned to Eichstätt for dinner. In the morning we left for the Munich airport, said goodbye, and the European experience for one of us came to an end.

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