Monday, October 26, 2009

Europe trip summary & notes

In no particular order, here are my & Greg's takeaways from our two week European vacation:
We encountered more of an English barrier in Berlin than in Prague, Krakow or Budapest. There were virtually no English announcements on public transit or in the train stations or written on directional signs, so we really had to be intuitive and work together to figure out how to get from A to B. In terms of tourist friendliness, all cities had good and reasonably priced public transport. The challenge for any traveler is having to be constantly alert to schedules/changes, getting on a train/tram/subway going in the right direction and stopping at the needed location. Greg & I misread a regional train schedule modification in Berlin and wound up way out in the suburbs late one night with no way to get back to our stop until the next inbound train was coming through almost an hour later! Overall, we agreed that Prague was the most tourist-friendly city we visited. It was compact and nice for walking (beware the cobblestones and always wear well-soled walking shoes), everyone spoke adequate English, there was good food & cheap beer, and interesting attractions.
Bottom line, I have traveled extensively and I felt more secure (i.e. less threatened by pickpockets, scam artists, etc.) in the cities we visited versus Paris, Rome, Barcelona and other western European capitals. But I just want to point out, and this really has nothing to do with safety, that there are sex shops everywhere in Eastern Europe. A streetscape might look something like this: convenience store, restaurant, tobacco shop, sex shop, fast food place, bank, pharmacy. A note on children's independence: We saw kids as young as 4 or 5 taking the subway/tram by themselves. I also observed this in NYC, but it's pretty rare outside of major cities.
One inconvenience was having to handle so many different currencies. Yes, we were prepared and had printed's currency converter wallet-size cheat sheets in advance, but having to calculate how much cash we should withdraw from an ATM in each city (and incur a fee each time; many attractions, restaurants, etc. did not accept credit cards) was a nuisance. Even worse, if we had leftover money and had to convert at an exchange desk, we lost on the poor rates. I traveled to a total of six countries on my trip and had to deal with six different currencies! True, the Eastern Europe countries will probably all convert to the Euro within a few years. On the subject of credit cards, both Greg & I applied for and received Capital One cards prior to our trip. There is no annual fee nor do they charge a foreign transaction fee unlike all many other card companies.
Miscellaneous Expenses
Paying to pee: Yes, I mention this because even at some restaurants and tourist attractions (where you've already paid an entry fee or your food bill), you have to pay to use their restrooms. Typically less than $1, but still, this adds up fast! Where it was most annoying -- Berlin's Tegel airport! Come on people, where else are you going to go?!?
Environmental Awareness
As with pretty much anywhere in Europe, the majority of people take public transport to get around, or even better, walk or ride bikes. Cars are smaller and get better gas mileage. With the exception of Krakow, everywhere we went there were recycling containers every few blocks. Many places don't have air conditioning (although all the tourist-oriented ones do). Toilets are dual flush (you choose how much water is needed to clear the bowl, less or more).
Overnight trains are a great way to travel between cities without the security hassles and luggage restrictions at airports. Plus the cost includes transport & accommodation so you can save money by doing two things at once. I've previously traveled in coach sleepers, whether in a compartment with seats that pull out to form beds (and thus you are very cozy with the strangers sitting next to you) or in a 6-bed mixed sex bunk configuration, all with shared baths at either end of the car. Greg & I purchased our tickets in advance through Rail Europe and the price of a first class sleeper was only a few dollars more than coach. For our two overnight rides (Prague to Krakow; Krakow to Budapest) we had a private but still tiny compartment with three bunks on one wall (with one folded up to create more head room) outfitted with nice quality sheets, pillows and blankets. There was also a small sink and a place to hang some clothes. Bathrooms were still shared, but were a step up from the coach version. Be sure to bring water -- it's not potable on the train and many overnight trains do not have cafes or dining cars, although the first class concierge had a tiny kitchen and sold drinks and snacks.
We stayed at small pensions or B&B's in areas just on the edge of the city centers, preferring a more localized experience to the mass market/chain hotels. We also stayed in one hostel in Krakow. A cold breakfast was included in our room rates and since a typical European breakfast includes meat, cheese, and bread, along with fruit, cereal, yogurt, coffee/tea, and sometimes boiled eggs, this is a great way to decrease your food costs by eating a large breakfast then skip lunch and eat an early dinner.
More food/drink notes
Meals were heavy on the meats & starches while vegetables were almost impossible to find much less order. Tap water was drinkable everywhere, although you always have to ask for it. Bottled water or sodas cost more than beer or wine. Needless to say, we drank lots of beer! Here's a list of all the variations we tried: Berlin - Lowenbrau, Berliner, Schultheiss, Freibergitch Prague - Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Staropramen, Krusovice, Budvar, Kozel, X33 (world's strongest beer - delicious and similar to a brandy or something you sip on after dinner) Krakow - CK Browar, Zywecz, Tantra, Warda, Okocim; I also had a Ukranian beer and we tried the famous bison grass vodka (Zubrowka) in a cocktail mixed with apple juice, and a different cocktail "Mad Dog" made with vodka, raspberry liqueur, & 3 drops of Tabasco. Budapest - Dreher, Soproni, Borsodi, Borostyan. Greg forced me to eat at McDonald's under the premise that it was for historical purposes -- it was the first McDonald's ever opened behind the Iron Curtain (in Budapest). One of our most authentic dining experiences was at a Polish milk bar where no one spoke English nor was there an English menu, there were no tourists, and the food was tasty with generous portions and very low prices. The milk bars (bar mleczny) are a government-subsidized holdover from the communist era.
This trip truly was an eye-opener and an educational albeit sobering experience in terms of the devastation wrought during World War II and the human toll of both Naziism and Communism. The question Greg & I kept asking ourselves was "how could it happen and why did it take so long to stop it?" Without the instant and expansive reach of the communication methods and technology available today, the repression, forced labor, and extermination of millions of people was able to take place almost without notice. After our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, Greg & I both wanted to re-watch Schindler's List, which we finally did last weekend, along with The Pianist. It is truly a testament to the human will to survive and thrive that there are today so many descendants of the persecuted.
While I did some background research prior to the trip using DK and Frommer's guidebooks, we only carried one book with us. Greg declared Rick Steves' Eastern Europe as the MVP of the trip. It provided the background/context for the places we visited, the food we ate, and the language we heard. I also recommend as pre-trip reading Rick Steves' Europe Through The Back Door and his Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler.
I've been carrying my Eagle Creek backpack and toiletry kit since my first extended trip to Europe in the late 90's. Greg recently purchased a Rick Steves Convertible Carry-On and small hanging toiletry bag. I use eBags packing cubes to keep my clothes neat and organized. During the day, I carried a PacSafe CitySafe 200 purse and Greg carried an REI Boarding Bag. My backpack weighed only 19 lbs, but my 2nd bag weighed almost 14 lbs when filled with all of my electronics, including my Acer Aspire One laptop. Luckily, since we were staying in secure locations, I could leave the computer and other items at the hotel during the day. Greg's bags weighed 25 lbs total, which is really the max you want to carry, no matter the duration of your trip. I sent Greg a detailed packing list in preparation for this trip. Note that we did not check any bags, so everything had to be suitable for carry-ons.

If you'd like to see all of my photos from this trip, here are the links:
Auschwitz & Birkenau