Air Force Chill Out

Trip Start May 04, 2006
Trip End Mar 05, 2007

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Flag of Germany  , Baden-Württemberg,
Sunday, September 24, 2006

In the last entry I created I stated that it had been a long time since I had written anything. I was right. Now this one has been even longer overdue than the last one but alas, it is complete. Thanks to those of you who have continued to push me for updates and to everyone for taking some time to follow along with me in my adventures.

Following form with the other entry, I am going to break this down into sections by city to hopefully allow you to follow along a little easier. I created an entry for Venice in the actual Venice entry whereas the remaining I will write about here along with an entry under Roubia and Barcelona. Basically, any entry that has pictures associated with it, also has some written insight. That being said, onward we go.

1: Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb. The capital of Croatia. I arrived to Zagreb with an uncertain idea of how long I was going to stay and an undecided next destination. I found a place to sleep for the night, put my bags down and hit the streets. After walking around for several hours taking in what there was to see, I decided that one day of sightseeing was enough for me. Zagreb reminded me of Warsaw, a small eastern European capital that had character yet did not really appeal to me much. To be fair, I think there are cities that have fallen along my itinerary and based on any number of factors have either been interpreted favorably or not, not just on their merit but more likely on my state of mind, mood, attitude, surroundings etc. I think if I were to go back and do the same cities I have done throughout this trip in a completely different order, I can guarantee I would have different opinions of some cities just due to the difference in my demeanor. Like Warsaw, I donīt think I gave Zagreb an honest chance because it was a gap city in between places I really intended to go. I went to Warsaw to avoid the night train to Krakow that I had been warned about, Krakow being my desired ultimate destination. Zagreb was an intermediate stop on my way to either the Croatian coast or Budapest, but since the train system isnīt as efficient in Croatia, it would have taken me a day of travel each way just to get to the beach towns. I decided against heading to the beaches alone and hit the road to Budapest. I do hope to make it back to Croatia another time and have heard the beach towns are simply breathtaking with crystal blue waters and unbelievable views, but that will have to wait. After all, you cant see everything in one pass.

2: Budapest, Hungary

My train ride from Zagreb to Budapest was the first feel I got of really being in a foreign land along my trek eastward. While crossing the Croatia/Hungary border we stopped at the border station to have the authorities check our passports, a normal occurrence when crossing non-EU borders. This crossing however was a bit different than others. First, I had the Croatian authorities come and stamp my passport with the exit stamp followed by the Hungarian authorities. He took my passport and eyed it for a lengthy period of time. He stamped it and held it in his hand while eyeing all of my luggage. I was in a compartment by myself and he looked long and hard at my big backpack and asked if I had anything to declare. I wasnīt sure what that meant but I said no. He continued to stare at my backpack and then moved his glares to my smaller backpack. He then moved on to my plastic bag I had with me and asked what was in it. "Food", I said with a hand motion of putting a cheeseburger in my mouth. He looked inside to confirm, and maybe because there actually wasnīt a cheeseburger in there, he took another lengthy look at my backpack, stared me down eye to eye and at this point I started to wonder, maybe I did have something I wasnīt supposed to. Fortunately, he had had enough toying with me and reluctantly handed me back my passport and walked on. Iīm not sure if he was just trying to scare me or if thatīs just how they do things on the border, but it was definitely an interesting encounter.

Budapest is split by the Danube river which, until reunited in 1872, used to be two separate cities, Buda and Pest. The Danube meanders through the middle of a beautiful and expansive city that has so much to offer. In old Buda, you can sit atop castle hill and look down upon the river and the grand expanse of Pest, the more commercial half of the city. The entire city definitely has an eastern European feel and I spent hours just walking around taking in the contrast between the centuries-old surroundings mingling with the ever-increasing presence of western influence and modernization. The architecture is second to none and it inspired me. I must have taken at least 100 pictures on the first day alone. Thank you for digital cameras.

Hungary is one of the few stops Iīve had that is not on the Euro and itīs always quite interesting to deal with currency that you are not completely familiar with, especially when the exchange rates are something exorbitant. I have used McDonalds as a familiar standard and tend to check out the prices there in any country just to see how it measures up. A Big Mac meal in Budapest would run you a steep 1200 or so Hungarian Forint...about €6 or $6, I forget which currency I was converting to. Iīve found that I mostly now convert to Euros because thatīs what Iīm accustomed to, although they are definitely not the same when I look at my bank statement.

I happened to be in Budapest for the start of the NFL season and managed to find a sports bar that showed a couple of games that were being broadcast on Sky Sports, the English satellite network. One of the games they actually televised was the Cowboys vs Jacksonville game, which Dallas ended up squandering, however it was nice to get a little taste of home. Iīve actually been able to find spots to see games every Sunday since. Prague, Stuttgart and Barcelona have all offered up NFL at some spot or another. Yes, I am a big football fan, but also canīt help but become more of a futbol fan because no matter where you go or what you do, there is futbol...and itīs much easier to find on TV.

I had heard from many travelers I had met that I simply had to visit the Hungarian baths when I was in Budapest, so visit the baths I did. Basically what they are is a tamed down version of Wet nī Wild, or whatever water park you may know, for older people. Thatīs actually quite an exaggeration because there is nothing at all resembling a ride, unless you count a heated pool with a current allowing you to wade faster than normal in an oval a ride. Besides the masses of seniors in bathing suits, I neednīt say more, it was quite the experience. Several people had told me to reserve a whole day for the baths however I could only muster a solid three hours amongst the myriad of different pools, tubs, steam rooms and saunas. Throughout the complex they have pools of water anywhere from icy cold water to near scalding hot water. Also there are steam rooms, saunas, massage therapists...pretty much anything you could ask for in the relaxation/therapeutic realm. I forked up some Forint to get a 15 minute massage and by the end I was whimpering and thanking the good Lord that it was over. I didnīt think I had any knots or any tension anywhere but when I left I felt like I had gone 12 rounds with the champ. It was an experience for sure and a good place to kick back and rejuvenate, just stay away from the massages.

3: Vienna, Austria

Spending a couple of weeks in a few eastern European cities presented some interesting encounters and scenarios that you donīt come across while traveling in western Europe. Granted, traveling in general always has its challenges but these are magnified and multiplied the farther east you venture. There is the task of familiarizing yourself with the currency which always ends up being a constant math equation to convert to see if you are being gouged. Then there are the locals that tend not to speak as much English, requiring some creative, and often entertaining, exchanges. Lastly, the cities, while continuing to grow into major tourist spots, are still young new additions to the EU family so they tend to be less "polished" and living conditions, which by no means are poor, are just a shade less favorable.

I didn't realize these differences until I left Budapest and headed back west. The realization came as I was sitting on my train to Vienna and saw a clean, new Austrian train pass by headed east. I found that I was relieved to be headed back to a currency that I knew in a country more English-friendly. As we progressed across the border the influence and effect of the EU and, more importantly, the EU tax dollars, became very evident. The same can be said for almost every major EU city Iīve been to. You could bet your bottom dollar on at least one of the major tourist sites or avenues would be either under some sort of construction/renovation or covered in scaffolding.

I originally booked only three days in Vienna because I was anxious to move along to Prague to take in all it had to offer, however once I arrived and spent a day wandering the broad avenues and taking in the fantastic sites of the town, I ended up extending my stay. That speaks for itself given I have already done 4 months of travel all over Europe and already having seen some of the best of the best the Europe has to offer. With several cities prior I had already caught myself glazing over sites because Iīve become a bit accustomed, if you will, to the European architecture, culture, sights and sounds. Vienna however would not let that affect my impression and reminded me of Copenhagen with its muted colored building faces lined along broad avenues running through the city. Of all the places I have been I would say that Vienna easily makes the list of top 3 most architecturally beautiful cities. It seemed as though every corner I turned I was confronted by another impressive edifice or breathtaking display of architectural ingenuity.

I had a memorable dinner experience while in Vienna. I went out with a group of people from the hostel I was staying in to a recommended restaurant. We were instructed to order this certain meal meant to feed a large group. We ordered and out came a massive feast for the 8 of us that consisted of wiener schnitzel, beef, sausages, fries etc etc etc, however the kicker was that all the meat came out skewered on a sword that was then placed on our table, from which you served yourself. It turned out to be a great meal, a great deal and an even better experience.

It came to my attention just how long I've been traveling when I crossed the street in Vienna. Its minor but worth noting...I now look both ways not only when crossing the street, but also when crossing bike lanes. These Europeans are crazy about their bikes. As you grow up you in the US you are taught to look both ways when crossing the streets, you of course are looking out for cars, not bikes. Not to mention that in almost every city in the States Iīve been to doesn't even have bike lanes on most roads. Further, if you disobey what your parents taught you and forget to look both ways, with cars you can usually hear them coming anyway, but bikes...stealth. Quite frankly Iīm more scared of getting run over by a bike over here than a car. By the time you realize that the ringing of that bell you hear behind you means a polite "GET OUT OF MY WAY!", its almost too late.

4: Czech Republic

My first stop in Czech Republic was Prague. Going to Prague is like taking a trip a few centuries back in time...accompanied by a million tourists. Prague has to be one of the hottest tourists spots in Europe because even though I was there in late September, which isn't peak season, the streets were still mobbed with people from all over the world. I have been wading through seas of tourists for months now but for whatever reason Prague seemed to be near the top as far as congestion in and around the touristy Stare Miasto (old town) and the picturesque Hradcany Castle, perched high on a hilltop overlooking the old town.

Any thoughts of encountering just another typical European city with broad avenues and familiar architecture were immediately dispelled when I first walked into the old town. The buildings donīt fit the mold of what many of the other cities Iīve seen. The cathedrals look very medieval and reminded me of the dribble castles I used to make at the beach as a kid. The streets wind in a seemingly senseless manner, weaving around town from one square to another, offering plenty of opportunities to sit, relax and soak in your surroundings.

The medieval feel and inspiration also translates inside the buildings. Most every restaurant or bar I went to was an array of cave-like rooms connected by tunnels that made you feel like you were sitting in a centuries-old dungeon. We entered one bar in particular and at first thought it was only a small bar with about 10 seats. We thought about leaving but ended up going down some stairs tucked in the corner to look for the bathroom. Those stairs led through several passages and narrow stairwells that opened up at various points to cavernous rooms, mostly all underground and each with their own bar. The exposed brick and mortar walls lit only by candles placed on top of thick wooden tables created a muted and medieval ambience. It was such a cool place to chill and drink and unlike any other bar Iīve been to anywhere.

I stayed at a great hostel, cleverly named the Czech Inn, while in Prague which happens to be part of the group of "Europeīs Famous Hostels". Its a really nice hostel/hotel with a very modern feel just on the edge of town away from tourist central which affords you the opportunity to get a better feel of what the city is truly about. I spent several nights enjoying the cheap beer from their bar while talking to other travelers and figuring out the plans for the evenings. Little did I know that spending so much time around the lobby bar mingling with not only the travelers but also the staff would lead to a small deviation in my travel plans and a further insight into what the Czech Republic has to offer.

My intentions were to head from Prague to Salzburg, Austria and as my departure date approached, I was chatting with the manager of the hostel and she started telling me about this beautiful place called Cesky Krumlov. This was the second native Czech person that had tried to convince me about making a stop there but for whatever reason I had my mind set on getting to Salzburg and hadn't considered making an extra stop. A few factors managed to change my mind. First of all, I took a step back and started thinking, why was I in such a hurry? Where did I have to be? The answer was simple. Nowhere. I got spare time. Secondly, there was a small group of friends I had made from the hostel that were all considering going to Cesky together. Iīd have company. And finally, knowing how annoying the mobs of tourists can be to locals who put up with the masses day in and day out, to have a local not only recommend the town as a must see but also be willing to accompany us and be our personal tour guide, how could I NOT stop by and poke around for at least a day or two. Besides, Cesky Krumlov is located in the south of Czech Republic which was on my way to Salzburg anyway. So the decision was made and I, accompanied by a couple of hostel friends from the States along with our own personal tour guide, headed off on our adventure to Cesky Krumlov.

Even though we had the "in" being friends of friends with the hostel owner where we were going to stay, our living conditions started off as being almost a nightmare. The hostel was full when we arrived and so were put on a fold-out couch in a room with about 20 beds in it. We went into the empty room and dropped off our bags then headed out to grab a bite to eat. We returned to the room to find our roommates to be an entire group of loud and rowdy 18 year old Aussies with a BusAbout tour group. Our bags had been tossed off the couch and were laying half across the room in the middle of the floor and I noticed that my bag was wet. I said to my friend, "oh man, it looks like someone spilled water on my bag." to which one of the kids replied nonchalantly, "oh no...thatīs vodka." "Oh. Ok. Thanks." It was clear this was going to be a bad situation. We were already tired from being out late the night before and had visions of a night of zero sleep accompanied by who knows what other inconsiderate encounters. We talked to Lenka about it and luckily she was able to pull some strings with her friends and we managed to get moved into a brand new portion of the hostel. It was basically our own apartment with our kitchen and bathroom and more importantly, away from the loud, crazy and inconsiderate group we were previously set up with. You may be thinking "but didnīt he say it was full when they arrived?" Yes. I did. One minor detail as to why it was vacant and hadn't been considered beforehand. It hadn't officially been completed. The kitchen wasnīt finished, there were still ladders and tools laying around all over the place and at one point, the workers cut the power to do some electrical work, but all in all it was well worth it. We ended up only having to pay just a tad more for basically our own little apartment right near the center of town where we could actually sleep. And letīs be honest, who needs power when they are sleeping anyway?

With our accommodations sorted we were ready to take in our surroundings. Cesky is a very small town so after walking around for only about two hours, we had basically seen most of what was Cesky Krumlov. That being said, what we saw was majestic. The town sits in a valley in the Czech countryside and is highlited by a beautiful castle, lovely old buildings connected by narrow winding cobblestone streets and views of the quaint town and rolling hills, all of which are postcards waiting to happen.

I must say that traveling with a local takes a lot of the guesswork and confusion out of traveling to a place that you know nothing about and donīt speak the language. Lenka, our Czech friend, showed us not only where to stay but also showed us some great spots to grub, and grub we did. We had two meals that were especially memorable. The Czech people fuel themselves on a predominately meat and potatoes diet and our first experience in Cesky did not disappoint. As I mentioned, there is a river that flows directly through the middle of town and it provides not only a great atmosphere to have a nice meal, but also impromptu entertainment. Let me explain. One of the things you can do to pass the time in Cesky is to rent rafts and float the river through town and off into the countryside. From this excursion came our in-dining entertainment. As we sat literally on the edge of the river, we watched countless raft after raft pass. We all love people watching. Most people watching is pretty plain vanilla but the jewel of people watching is catching someone or something funny/entertaining/memorable/embarrassing etc. Maybe you see someone come by on a skateboard and do some really cool tricks. Maybe you see someone trip and fall. You get the point. So while we were sitting there watching all these rafts pass, of course we get to talking about how it would be very rewarding to see some people horsing around and bail out of their rafts into the river. Not 5 minutes later, before my meat feast had even arrived, we hear it before we see it. A group of rafts with rowdy passengers comes around the corner. I saw them and immediately thought, "Yes. This is the one." Although there were a couple of humorous times as they approached that almost sent them into the drink, they proceeded to wait, almost as if they were there to entertain just us, until they were right by our table when things onboard got a bit too hectic and despite the valiant effort of everyone onboard to fight their impending capsizing, gravity finally got the best of them all and sent them flailing overboard and into the river. Classic. A people watching gem filed away.

My favorite meal in Cesky was dinner on our last night. This place is quite popular so we had to make reservations earlier in the day to ensure we had a spot later that night. As you walk into the restaurant, you walk right past a major flaming grill with assorted meats being roasted to perfection by the burning embers and dancing flames. The menu consists of any type of meat you could imagine and is all cooked right there in front of you on the massive grill. We had some sausages grilled up and brought to the table as an appetizer. For my meal, I ordered the half chicken with potatoes and a salad which they proceeded to bring out piled high on a little circular cutting board. It was just as entertaining to try and keep all my food balanced on the plate as it was enjoyable to eat. The chicken was so very tender and juicy and of course we left stuffed as any good meat and potatoes meal will do.

I enjoyed my time in and around Prague and Cesky Krumlov and having soaked up my fair share of the culture and a lionīs share of the food, it was time to move on. Even though I didnīt have anywhere to be and was in no rush to be anywhere, leaving Czech, and more specifically Cesky, was quite an ordeal. Looking at a map would have you think that it would be very easy to get to Salzburg. Not so my friend. To get to Salzburg, or anywhere, from Cesky you have to take a bus or a train to the next biggest town, Cesky Budejovic which then provides you more outlets to other spots. On my day of departure I woke up at 6AM and spent an hour, improperly dressed in a t-shirt in the coldest weather Iīve encountered on my trip, walking back and forth across the main road that runs through Cesky trying to decipher from signs or anyone I could find, at what time and from which side the bus I needed to take departed. After trying to board each of about 6 or so buses thinking they were the ones I needed, I finally managed to hop on the right bus and begin my journey to Salzburg. After a couple of buses and a couple of trains I had successfully managed to twist and turn my way out of the Czech Republic.

5: Salzburg, Austria

Traveling as long as I have and visiting so many different cities, there have been many a time when I have unknowingly arrived in the midst of some sort of major event, celebration, festival etc. Like many other places I've been, I went to Salzburg without having made any reservations for accommodations and planned simply to find a place once I arrived. I got to the main train station, hopped off the train and headed straight to the tourist office which often has a listing of places to stay and will sometimes even call them for you. Letīs just say that this tourist office was not quite so user-friendly.

The lady I encountered was a disgruntled Austrian woman with seemingly no interest in her job, to help me, Mr. Tourist. I asked about accommodations in town and she hastily took out an orange piece of paper and proceeded to violently cross through listing after listing with her pen and finally handed me a sheet with only two places spared from her inked barrage. I then asked if she had a map of the city to which she grumbled something that I deciphered to mean it cost 80 cents. I paid for the map and left the tourist office with my map and my two places to call to try to find accommodation. I unfolded the map to get a lay of the land and see where these places were located. After fumbling around with the map for a few minutes I realized that, through my travels, I have now developed a new pet peeve, bad maps. I love maps. (I love lamp.) I guess I should say I love good maps. There are those cities with maps that are just entirely too big, especially for those smaller towns/villages that arenīt even that big to begin with. I mean come on, get over yourself. Your city isnīt that big after all. Stop trying to compensate by printing a wall size map.

Another map peeve I despise is maps that tear and basically disintegrate, rendering themselves useless, any time you, God forbid, fold them in any manner other than in the initially intended crease and direction. The cause of needing to fold them differently in the first place usually stems from my first map complaint, the fact that they are so damn big that if you donīt improvise with the folds, it could take you 5 minutes of origami-like chaos every time you want to take a look at where you are or where that great kebab stand is that the dude from yesterday told you about. And thatīs not even taking into account if itīs windy or if you are in a crowded area without the real estate a colossal map necessitates. As much as possible I try to avoid looking blatantly like a tourist. Sure itīs unavoidable at times when having just arrived to a city, I may be seen wandering down streets in search of my hostel, gazing off into the distance with a confused look on my face while lugging my big backpack around like a pack mule. That is inevitable, but once you are settled and wandering around town trying to blend in, the big map is a surefire giveaway.

You may be wondering, as I was, why there were only two places in all of Salzburg that werenīt booked solid while I was there. The World Championships of Cycling of course. Ahhh...right. Forgot about that. I guess it really would help if you did a little bit of advanced research or reservations ahead of time, but that would rob you of one of the greatest assets a backpacker has, complete freedom from any commitments and the ability to change plans on a whim. Realizing now what I was up against, I hit the phones to call my two rays of light, hoping they still had beds. While waiting in line to use the phone in the train station, I noticed a couple of Australians wrestling their own map of Salzburg and talking about trying to find a place to sleep. I told them what I had found out and shared what little info I had. His guide book mentioned a small town outside the city that had a hostel. It turns out that he and his wife were in the same boat as me and after chatting with them about our options and our plans for the next few days, we decided we would stay in Hallein, a 20 minute train ride from Salzburg.

Salzburg itself, although overrun with cyclists from around the world while I was there, is yet another gorgeous city. The old town sits on the bank of the Salzach river and is a small concentration of avenues lined with grand buildings including magnificent churches, extravagant palaces and beautiful gardens. Looming overhead with its dominating presence is Salzburg castle, who's presence and purpose can not go unnoticed. Seeing the massive castle perched high atop the mountain overlooking the city helps to paint the picture of how important security and defense were in centuries past. It's awe-inspiring to mentally take a trip back in time and, while standing at the base of the mountain, peer straight up the cliff face with your head fully cocked back and imagine trying to formulate some way to successfully attack and overtake a castle so large and so strategically located with whatever minimal weapons and methods of engagement that were available.

Salzburg is where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born and his inspiration still carries throughout the streets. Salzburg also holds claim to being the site of the filming of the Sound of Music and indeed the hills are alive with the sound of music. While meandering through the old town I saw a man playing some Mozart pieces by running his finger along the rim of an assortment of crystal glasses filled with varying amounts of water. He was actually quite good and even had CDs of his soothing renditions you could purchase on the spot. I bet he makes enough money doing that to easily live off of. Its amazing some of the things you see tourists buy and, more shockingly, what they are willing to pay for it, given they are overcome by their experiences and are willing or yearning to come away with some sort of memorabilia. I imagine the street performers, especially the really good ones, make a great deal of money during peak tourist season.

With the World Championships of Cycling in town for the weekend I was in Salzburg, not only did it make securing accommodation nearly impossible, but also the simple task of walking across the city became a challenge in itself. Many sidewalks and roads were blocked off for the race course and there were only a few spots along the route that you could cross. With the course running right through the middle of town, it made quite a veritable barrier between one side of the city and the other. That, accompanied by the confusing layout of the streets and my inept map, led to me spending much of my first day wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out a)where I was 2)where I was going, and d)how to get there. Luckily for me the worst was behind me. As it turned out, my next day was far easier. Being an off day for the race, the streets were once again open and navigating the city became considerably easier...but the map was still terrible.

After spending my last full day playing tourist, night had fallen and I decided to call it a day. I was heading back to the train station to catch the next-to-last train back to Hallein and after a good thirty minute walk across town I rounded the last turn and could see the train station in the distance. As I was walking I looked ahead at the person heading in my direction and noticed, with understanding and appreciation, that it was a backpacker arriving late into the evening and about to embark on the same journey every backpacker does upon first arrival to a new spot. I hoped that he, unlike me, had made prior reservations so he wouldn't have to encounter the same headaches I had. As he got closer I had to take a second and third look because, even though Iīve met hundreds of people here and there, this guy looked familiar. As we got within speaking distance I confirmed that it was indeed an American guy I had met a few days prior who had made the journey with me to Cesky Krumlov. He was also traveling by himself and after sharing the amusement of the additional encounter in a different country, I asked him about his situation in Salzburg. Just from chatting with him when we had met previously I got a sense of how he traveled and I was pretty certain what his answer would be. Like me he was very open and flexible with his travel plans and indeed had not made reservations anywhere. He mentioned one hostel that he was going to walk to and hope they had beds. I recalled that hostel being one of the victims of the pen massacre on my list from the tourist office and I told him about the troubles I had finding accommodation and, even though my train was leaving 10 minutes later, I knew there was one more an hour later and stayed around to help him and see how the situation unfolded.

I still happened to have my list of accommodations on me and after calling the two from the sheet along with a few in the guide book he had with no luck, I told him about an Internet shop I had seen and so off we went. He perused the Internet in search of other options and called several other places with no luck. As a traveler you hope to never encounter this situation but it is also one of the inherent risks associated with the free-wheeling travel style. What to do? Youīve just arrived. Itīs close to 11PM. Not much is open. The World Championships of Cycling happens to be in town and everywhere is booked. I threw an offer on the table for him to take the train with me back out to Hallein as I had recalled that in our room back at that hostel there was 4 beds and only three of us in the room the night before. The uncertain factor was whether there was a 4th person that had checked in during the day. If he took the last train out to Hallein with me he would be stuck there with no place to stay. If he stayed he would be stuck in Salzburg with no place to stay. Unfortunately the Salzburg train station is not that big and didnīt offer any realistic spots to curl up and try and catch a few hours of sleep so the old sleep in the train station option was unavailable. Finally he decided against coming with me to Hallein and began looking at the remaining train schedule departing from Salzburg that night and trying to determine where he was going to head. You canīt find any place to stay in the city you have just arrived, then just hop on a night train somewhere and sleep on the train. Unfortunately, there werenīt too many good options and he was up in the air as to what he was going to do. My last train was due to depart in a few minutes and I had to leave. Last I know, I left him in the train station while he pondered over his Eurail map and the train station schedule of destinations. I still to this day donīt know how he fared, what he did or where he ended up going but Iīm sure he made it out with flying colors and an interesting story to boot. Who knows, maybe Iīll run into him again in the near future and can get the scoop.

6: Munich, Germany: OKTOBERFEST!!!

Once I realized I would not only still be in Europe but would most likely be somewhere fairly close to Munich during late September, I marked Oktoberfest on my mental calendar. Not more than a week or two later, I got an e-mail from a friend, Jackie, who mentioned that she was now living in Stuttgart and wanted to head to Oktoberfest for a weekend excursion and to let me know if I was interested. I now had a running buddy to tackle the shenanigans of Oktoberfest. Itīs funny how things work out sometimes.

After a small amount of planning, we decided to meet in Munich Saturday September 23rd. She would be coming by car from Stuttgart that morning and I would be coming in from Salzburg by train. It all sounds fairly straightforward, however, have you ever taken some time to think about how reliant we have become on cell phones to coordinate plans? In the pre-cell phone days we used to have to designate a time and place to meet and it was as simple as that. "Iīll meet you at Whataburger tomorrow at 2". Done. Now with cell phones, as we all know, it has conformed to the more loose form of "Iīll call you when Iīm on my way" or "Iīll call you when I decide what my plans are", which leaves us prone to procrastinating when making plans. So arrives the day of our rendezvous in Munich and; due to me not having a cell phone, Jackieīs cell phone not working while she was at work, and us missing e-mail communication the couple of days before I was to arrive, that was as far as we had gotten. "Iīll meet you in Munich on Saturday", thus leaving the exact meeting point up in the air smack in the middle of the main city on a Saturday of one of the biggest festivals of the year where tens of thousands of people constantly come and go by trains, planes and automobiles at all hours.

As I recall, I sent Jackie an e-mail on Friday saying something along the lines of "Iīm still gonna head to Munich on Saturday and Iīll give you a call from the train station when I arrive. I hope you are still gonna be there." Notice how it still fits the "Iīll call you when I get there" form but what other option was there at this point. I hopped on the train and off I was to Munich, to Oktoberfest.

I didnīt have to go any farther than my train, a 3 hour trip from Munich, to begin to wrap my head around the party that is Oktoberfest. People throughout the train, the 9AM train mind you, were decked out in their traditional Bavarian outfits, women in their dirndls and men in their liederhausen, many of which were already diving into the cases of beer they had with them. Each stop along the way only led to more and more fittingly-dressed patrons piling on the train eagerly anticipating their arrival to the festival where over 1,000,000 gallons of beer are consumed every year. All the while hoping Jackie was still planning on being in Munich and hopefully being able to meet up.

Once we arrived to Munich, we all poured off the train and flowed through the sea of people that was the Munich Hauptbanhof (main train station). While everyone filed out of the train station clad in their outfits, I, loaded down with my backpacks, ducked out of the masses and into a phone booth. The moment of truth had arrived and so I picked up the phone, inserted my €1 coin and started dialing. Jackie answered and she was indeed in Munich! She had arrived earlier that morning and said she wasn't too far from the train station. I had been through Munich earlier in the summer for the World Cup and knew there was a big Burger King in the station, so thatīs where we decided to meet. What I didnīt know was that not only was there the big Burger King inside the station, but there was also one on that opened to the outside of the station. After 3 more phone calls and confusion of whether we were even at the same train station, we finally met up, I dropped off my bags in luggage storage and we headed off with the momentum of the crowd towards the fest.

It would be relatively hard not to find Oktoberfest while walking around Munich because there are so many people headed, as if drawn by a magnet, to the party. As you walk under the arches entering the fairgrounds, properly etched with "OKTOBERFEST", what unfolds before you is mesmerizing and stretches as far as the eye can see. After walking the full length of one of the main drags; lined with beer tents, food vendors, and any carnival ride or game you could imagine; you take a turn down a side walkway and realize that what you have just seen was only a part of the whole complex. Along with droves of beer vendors along the paths, there are also massive beer halls, each dedicated to a specific brewery; Hofbrau, Paulaner and Lowenbrau to name a few; and each sitting 3,000-5,000 people. Itīs easy to say that Iīve never seen so much or so many different types of meats in one central location; schnitzels, pork knuckles, whole roasted chickens, burgers, fish, whole roasted pigs on a spit and any kind of sausage you could think of made any way you could think to make it.

Oktoberfest is a big party. Ok, thatīs an understatement. Oktoberfest is an enormous party. While that still doesnīt really capture everything Oktoberfest has to offer, it does it a bit more justice. The major focus of conversations about Oktoberfest and the first thing most people think about is the massive and varied types of beer. However, being surrounded by all the different foods, theatrically presented haunted houses, a towering and shirt-soaking log flume, thrilling roller coasters and other fun rides I remembered from the days of my youth, made me feel like a kid in a candy store...or a kid at a carnival...a kid at one of the biggest carnivals in the world...only this time with liter after liter of tasty German beer.

By the time we had arrived and walked around the grounds to get a feel for what we were in for, we were ready to try and venture into a tent to get some steins and participate in all of the tent action, where the true Oktoberfest madness goes down. Most tents we walked by had lines by each door and were no longer letting anyone inside. We managed to sneak our way towards the front of the line at the Paulaner tent but just as we were ready to enter, they posted signs on the door that they were no longer letting anyone in. Not to be discouraged we struck up conversation with a group of Italians sitting close by the door and snuggled up with them at their table on the patio. The thing with Oktoberfest is that, in order to get a stein, you must be seated at a table. Having acquired a seat, we ordered some liters and dove head first into the atmosphere. All in all, we ended up spending a couple of hours sitting with these entertaining, and quite drunk, Italians while slurping down Paulaner steins and exchanging stories in a combination of broken English and broken Italian.

Oktoberfest in Munich was an eye-opening experience and since I had not thought to include it on my travel calendar until only a few weeks prior, I came away with a bonus great experience shared with a friend and yet another thing to check off on my list of travel desires.

7: Stuttgart, Germany

After leaving my last "home" in Florence, it had been a whirlwind of a month back on the road hopping from city to city and hostel to hostel zigzagging through eastern Europe capped off with a wild time at Oktoberfest. From Oktoberfest my intent was to head to Stuttgart with my friend Jackie to spend a few days. She is stationed with the Air Force in Stuttgart and not only did she meet me in Munich to share the good times but also graciously offered to put me up as long as I wanted to stay in Stuttgart. Honestly I wasnīt planning to do much on the tourist side of things and was just looking forward to taking some time to relax and recharge while spending some time with a friendly face from back on the other side of the pond.

It turns out that I must have really needed the rest because my second day in Stuttgart I got sick and spent a full two days laying around doing nothing but the following: sleeping; watching MTV and German cooking shows on TV, none of which I understood; watching borrowed VHS movies from the 80īs that the hotel had to offer, one out of four of which were so old that, without being able to figure out how to fix the tracking (ahhh the days of VHS), the screen would scramble every 20 seconds or so leaving you wondering what was going on; watching DVD movies and as many Chappelle Show and Family Guy episodes as I possibly could handle on her computer, all in English, which was amazing by the way.

Once I got myself back to 100% I did manage to head into center city Stuttgart to walk around a bit and see the town, although that wasnīt very high on my agenda. Stuttgart has a big Mercedes presence as I presume that is where a large amount of their offices are located as it seems no matter where you go in town you can see the Mercedes logo gleaming from the top of a building or on any of the number of cabs running through town...yeah, the cabs are Benzs. Overall, Stuttgart seemed to be another big and modern German city with a great transit system and all the German efficiency you would expect. I didnīt spend a lot of time sight-seeing or snooping around the city and instead took plenty of time to relax.

We did make it out a few times but mostly ended up heading onto the Army base in town which ended up being a surprisingly entertaining experience. Something as simple as walking into the Commissary (basically a US grocery store transplanted onto foreign soil) was a shock because it was like immediately teleporting to the US. I suppose I have become accustomed to what you would find in European markets or grocery stores, but walking into this place I felt like I was in a Tom Thumb, Safeway, Giant, Acme, or whatever grocery store chain you may have in your area. Those of you that know me well know that I LOVE ranch dressing. I put it on almost anything. Pizza, wings, salad, veggies, cereal. Ok, maybe not cereal, but you get the idea.
I am not alone in this appreciation for such a great dressing as a lot of people, mostly Americans and Canadians, I have met over the last months have also expressed their enjoyment of ranch. Ranch came up in conversation and one Australian said "I had never heard of this ranch phenomenon until I started meeting Americans." It is a phenomenon. Itīs amazing. Those Aussies think they have it all figured out with Veggiemite, which is now illegal in the USA (seriously...look into it), but they have no idea. As for trying to find ranch anywhere in Europe, good luck. Many restaurants you go to will tell you they have ranch and will even put it on the menu just because they know its popularity, but when it comes down to it, itīs nowhere close and more resembles a watered-down and bland mayonnaise. Not good.

Originally I had only planned on spending about 3-4 days in Stuttgart but after being leveled-sick for two days and then really getting into the whole relaxing and doing nothing thing for a few days, my short stay was continuing to grow. I was thinking to leave on a Thursday to head down to Barcelona because Jackie was planning to head to Berlin. We got to talking and decided that she would stick around Stuttgart if I did and we could go experience the Stuttgart version of Oktoberfest.

Munich is known around the world for being the host city for Oktoberfest and itīs the first city where anyone would venture to get the full blown experience, however, from what I could gather, I think most major cities in Germany, or maybe just Bavaria, also celebrate Oktoberfest and have parties of their own. The festivities in Stuttgart were a very similar environment to Munich only on a smaller scale. The grounds werenīt nearly as big and the crowds were much less dense but the food, beer, entertainment and good times were just as plentiful. Jackie and I made a trip out to the fair grounds on two separate nights in Stuttgart to make sure we didn't miss anything and I actually enjoyed it more than Munich. We got out fair share of beer, meat and haunted house rides, while none of which lived up to the hype of how I remember them from my childhood, were still fun. All in all it was a blast to meander through the carefree carnival atmosphere surrounded by various chocolate-covered fruits, games (Jackie is not a sharp shooter), popcorn, rides, families etc etc etc.

Having extended my 3 day pit-stop into a week-long excursion, I, and probably Jackie as well, was ready to move on and make my way down to Barcelona. I had been through the train station and knew there was an overnight train through Zurich that left at 4 in the afternoon. My plan was to head to the station and buy my ticket early in the day, spend the day uploading some photos and then hop on the train to make my way south. Jackie and I said our goodbyes and I made my way to the train station. After waiting in line for quite some time, then getting a clerk that didnīt speak English and having to wait even longer, I got to an English-friendly clerk and asked for the 4PM train through Zurish to Barcelona. After a few minutes of tickling the keys he informed me that it was sold out. Damn. Wasnīt the first time it had happened so I just asked to have the same train the next day. There wasnīt one. Apparently that train only runs a few days a week. Not to worry though, my friend at the counter was hard at work searching other options. After a long 10 minutes or so, he printed out a schedule and handed me a sheet of paper with my proposed itinerary. He had found a train leaving the next day, only this one went up to a town outside of Paris where I would have to change trains. From there I would go to Paris, but not the main station. I would need to catch a metro to the main station and then wait a few hours before catching my overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. All this speed and convenience for only €225! What a deal! I decided to pass on that option and told the guy I would think about it and left with my itinerary, which I quickly threw in the trash after exiting the station.

What to do? I spent some time on the web and found a direct flight leaving the next morning from Stuttgart to Barcelona for €120. Tough decision. An hour and a half direct flight for €120 or an ass-backwards, multi-connection slow as molasses 28 hour train journey for €225? Thankfully, even though she thought she had gotten rid of me, I had Jackie to fall back on and I am sure she was quite surprised when I knocked on her door again that evening. "Not him again!" So after blessing Jackie with my presence for one more night, I headed out to the Stuttgart airport to catch the third intra-European flight of my trip.

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