- July 15th, 2012
All right! I've been promising a real update for a while now, and since I've slept about 20 of the last 48 hours I finally have the brain power to type more than gibberish. I left off last in Istanbul, so it's probably best to break it down by city from there to here.
We stayed in the Jurys Inn right near the city center. It was kind of a trendy place, and I later found out why- it's about a 2-minute walk away from one of the richest streets in the world. That kind of killed my plans for playing Texas Hold 'Em, as I don't have five grand to toss around (yet!). Still, it was great to be able to easily get to the heart of town. Prague, more than maybe any other major city I've been in, has an extremely old-world feel to its city center. The architecture is such that if you removed the cars and tourists you could probably film a period piece from the 1800's, and it would be an AWESOME movie. Every once in a while we'd pass a tour group standing outside of some non-descript (yet beautiful) building, and the guide would be talking about the two-hundred year history of it, or about the such-and-such clock that was a marvel of engineering decades before its time, and so on.
The exchange rate there was still relatively good (about 18 Kroner/Crowns to the dollar), though prices were somewhat more Euro-centric than, say, Bangkok. Even so, it was a nice change from the 1.8:1 Turkish Lira, of which I spent probably a bit too much getting into all the tourist sites. Regardless, the best sites in Prague were all free to see, first among them being the big ol' bridge over the river near the Palace. The whole thing is lined with 20 or 30 statues of Byzantine style (as far as I'm able to judge such things), and all of them were remarkably well-preserved. That, combined with the amazing vista, made it onto my list of must-sees of Europe. Across the bridge and up an unfair number of steps was the Palace, which I wheezed and panted my way up to right at noon to fortuitously catch the Changing of the Guard. They let you stand much closer in Prague than they do at Buckingham, so if you're tall enough to see over the crowd you get a really good look at the uniforms and guns. The guard band wasn't half bad, either =)
Prague is also a great place to visit if you're really into medieval torture. I counted no less than 4 different tours, though we only went through one. I mean, how many thumbscrews do you need to see before you get the idea? I really enjoyed, though, how all the dungeons not only provide a contrast with the modern European era, but also a contrast with a place like China, where by and large they do NOT talk about their past human rights abuses.
After a night of 90's music at the Drunken Monkey, which is owned by an American ex-pat friend of one of Todd's friends, I left my travelling buddy to continue enjoying the night life in Prague and booked a trip to Frankfurt. It was way easier than I was expecting it to be, to the point where the kid at the ticket counter was giving me the look that said "Even for an American this guy is an idiot!" I casually hopped on a double-decker bus (but there's no driver on the top! How is it steered?!?) and off I went. I just about had a heart attack when the border crossing official stared long and hard at my passport, and asked me when I'd last been in Europe.
"Uhh... 2009? I think? It would've been, uh, Italy I guess. Or was it 2010?"
*heart attack begins*
A few hours and a train later, I arrived in...
...where I was greeted at the platform by Airman Doug Young. Not quite the same as in the movies where the haggard traveller steps off the train into the embrace of his beautiful girlfriend, but I guess I'll live =) It was good to see that guy again- it'd been a couple of years. I was worried that military life had changed him for the worse, but within five minutes we were talking about Magic: The Gathering cards and my fears were assuaged. We dropped my stuff off at the hotel, which was more of an apartment-style complex- it was really nice not to have to hassle with check-in and the rote speech that I have memorized from my hotel days. We decided to hunt for dinner along the street right in front of the Frankfurt Station, which got us some pretty good steaks and a revealing look at the side streets... which apparently are the Red Light district of Frankfurt. Probably a good business move, but most cities I've been to at least give it a two- or three-street buffer from the welcome mat. After dinner, we went in search of beer using my favorite method- walk along a street until you get bored, then turn down a side street. Frankfurt was not compatible with this, however, as we soon found ourselves in the banking district. Probably fascinating during the day, really boring in the evening. We abandoned the adventurous method and decided to just find somewhere near our hotel, which turned out to be a good call. We ended up at a little hole-in-the wall bar filled with local regulars- my absolute favorite kind of place to drink.
After unsuccessfully pretending to be from England (hey, we all have to have fun while travelling somehow!) I was sipping on a relatively awesome German brew when Doug asks me if I'd had Schnapps yet.
"No, I don't really do liqueur. It's too syrupy and sugary."
"Ah, so you HAVEN'T had Schnapps. Zwei Schnapps, bitta."
The bartender grins and pulls out a litre bottle that looked like it began life as a store-bought sparkling water bottle, then had its label carefully peeled off in order to be used for... well, it was a mostly-clear liquid, and there were a bunch of mint leaves floating near the bottom of it. Two shots were placed in front of us and
I recall leaving the bar and being extremely glad that it literally shared a wall with our apartment. I recall having bought a round of Schnapps for the regulars, and I recall tipping 20 euro on our 20 euro tab because I simply couldn't believe that four beers and an entire bottle of Schnapps cost less than two drinks in Istanbul. I have no idea what impression we left that bartender with, but I have the feeling like it was moderately favorable and unquestionably American.
DINOSAURS! Dinosaurs, and WHALES! The Frankfurt Museum of Natural History (I call it that because I can't remember if it had another, less generic name) was what made me decide to hit Frankfurt instead of Munich. Doug and I raised the average age in the place by a solid 5 years, I think, but definitely fit right in on the level of pure childish glee. There were big dinosaurs, and small dinosaurs, and jars full of eyeballs and fetuses, and a huge wheel you could spin to travel through time and watch plate tectonics happen, and DINOSAURS! Oh, and Sharks!
After returning to our mid-20s, we headed to Old Town. It was awesome, picturesque, there was a cathedral, yada yada yada. Very beautiful, definitely worth seeing, but I can only mentally process so many historic and architecturally stunning things in one trip. Needless to say, it's worth visiting if you find yourself in Frankfurt. From there we walked a couple of blocks to an old monastery which had progressed with the times by opening a bar to sell its homebrewed stuff. The rest of the evening, we hung out in the biergarten and swapped stories, complained about politics, discussed the merging of modern life with science fiction, and generally nerded out old-school. We headed back to the apartment with grand plans to drink the night away and keep up our discussions, and instead got back and promptly fell asleep. It was for the best, I'm sure, because the next day we had a nice drive to...
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Doug and I did a quick tour of the city while waiting for Mike and Nate to meet up with us as planned (though we had no clue what time they were actually arriving). Rothenburg ob der Tauber (which I still pronounce incorrectly, and will henceforth type as RodT) is exactly what you want if you're looking for a quiet vacation spot that caters to tourists. It's a medieval walled city that's been painstakingly restored and kept as close to the original as possible- though thankfully they've long since gotten rid of open sewers and whatnot. Walking along the wall itself is a great way to see the city, and occasionally you bump into some interesting folks. We met a couple from Australia who were in Germany to visit the man's brother. They hadn't seen each other since the man escaped from East Germany fifty years before, and it was the first time in their lives that they'd given each other a hug.
The rest of RodT was a blast as well. We hung out in a local pub during the Germany-Italy soccer game, which was a fun experience (if a disappointing ending to the game). The other major highlight was climbing the tower of the City Hall building, which is really, really tall. You get to look out over the city, and the rolling hillside of the country, and then your brain explodes from how picturesque it is and you have to be dumped over the side of the observation deck.
There were also these berries that they were selling. They were extremely tart and delicious. They were red. I have no idea what kind of berry it was, but I want more, and I want to put them in ice cream.
I had to travel back to Prague from RodT to catch my flight to England, which was uneventful. I arrived late enough that nothing else of note occurred, with the exception of a taxi driver that was quite disdainful of American culture and history as compared to Prague's. With that fresh in my mind, I arrived in the birthplace of our country and the home of obscene amounts of history.
After hauling my now-bulging baggage around trying to find a hotel with vacancies, I ended up at a hostel just outside of Oxford's city center. Oddly enough, this was the first time in all of my travels that I've stayed in a hostel. With the sole exception of having to haul my luggage up the stairs, I actually had a really good time. I shared a room with a couple of guys that I never ended up meeting, and Claire- an awesome Australian that further solidifies my fondness for that country. Sadly, she already has a genius, nerdy, law student boyfriend back home, but I'm always happy to find a friend while travelling who raves about the Chronicles of Narnia. After playing some pool in the hostel common room (well, they CALL it pool, but all the balls are half the size they should be), I joined some of the other travellers at the nightclub next door. It was loud, and after an attempt at dancing that refreshed my memory of why I don't go to nightclubs, I got some sleep.
The next morning, Claire and I ate 20 Chicken McNuggets and headed off to our respective colleges. I made it to Brasenose without too much trouble, and only my travel fatigue kept my brain from exploding AGAIN as I trundled my way through Hogwarts to get to my room (thankfully on the first floor this time). People started arriving throughout the course of the day, and it was really a blast at orientation to have fully a third of my §3 class there. After a formal dinner in the main dining hall (gorgeous, weight of history and prestige, etc.) and a trip to the Brasenose Bar downstairs, I called it a night.
Since then, my time in Oxford has been filled with socializing, darts, and (of course) classes. I'm taking European Union Law and English Law from Lord Blackbranch (a huge proponent of the EU and just as bonkers as every other law professor I've had) and last week I started Alternative Dispute Resolution with Professor Bogan (less crazy, but maybe that's just because he's from OU and knows to hide it better from the students). I'll probably write more about the content of those classes once I've had a few more of them- so far it's mostly been the survey-style foundational stuff, which is hard to get good critical analysis from. Aside from that, there's just the weekend in...
We all took a bus down for the Legal Tour of London a couple of Fridays ago. The tour was excellent- the guide was properly witty, and knew quite a bit about the legal structure of England. We learned about the difference between Solicitors and Barristers, about the goofy wigs everyone wears, and a little about the awesome architecture in the area. We took a brief walk around the Courthouse, then hit up Cheshire Cheese for lunch. Apparently the place is famous and everyone famous has been there, that sort of thing. I was more excited by Samuel Smith's Bitter, which is one of the best beers I've ever had on tap. It was sublime.
Mike and Nate and I got checked into our hotel, which was adequate- they self-rated at 2 stars, and that's about what we ended up with. My calves definitely appreciate the 4 flights of narrow stairs we had to climb every time we went up to our room. We attempted to get tickets to see a show or two, but apparently things tend to book up pretty rapidly two weeks before the Olympics in London, and had to settle for more mundane experiences throughout the city. We made it to the British Museum of Natural History (again, it probably has a cooler name) and spent 4 of the 15-20 hours possible. Still- mummies, the Rosetta Stone, Roman gold hoards, Sanskrit records...
We met up later with Megan and Cormier and hopped on a boat tour of the Thames. If you ever plan on going to London, this is a great way to see some historic sights of the city without crowding onto a bus or wearing your feet out. It has the added plus of letting you get off and on at various stops throughout the day, so you can do a lot without spending much effort (or money). Later, Mike and Nate and I wandered around a park (I forget which park, it's one of the famous ones) and got to overhear some big hip-hop concert- apparently this Drake person/group is a big deal? I dunno. Regardless, we got lost on the way back, and so I consider it a successful trip.
If you managed to read all of this in one sitting, congratulations! You hopefully understand why I haven't been able to wrap my exhausted little brain around all of this until I got a few good nights' sleep in a row. This coming weekend will be Cardiff and Bath, and the following weekend will be Inverness, Scotland, so stay tuned!