Monday, October 26, 2009
In no particular order, here are mine & Greg's takeaways from our European vacation: - On language: 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. - On safety: Bottom line, I have traveled extensively and I felt more secure (ie, less threatened by pickpockets, scam artists, etc.) in the cities we visited versus Paris, Rome, Barcelona and other western European capitals. But 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. - One inconvenience was having to handle so many different currencies. Yes, we were prepared and had printed Oanda.com'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 and received Capital One cards prior to our trip. There is no annual fee nor do they charge a foreign transaction fee unlike all other card companies. - 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). - 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. - Overnight trains: A great way to travel between cities without the security hassles & luggage restrictions at airports. Plus it's transport & accommodation combined so you can save money. 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 & 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. - Accommodations: 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 and then being able to 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. - History: 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 it could happen and why it took 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 & Birkenau, Greg & I both wanted to re-watch Schindler's List, which we finally did last weekend, as well as 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. - Guidebooks: 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. - Packing: 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 19lbs, but my 2nd bag weighed almost 14lbs when filled with all of my electronics, including this 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 25lbs total, which is really the max you want to carry, no matter what the duration of your trip. Here's the packing list I sent Greg in preparation for this trip. Note that we did not check any bags, so everything must be suitable for carry on (no liquids/pastes/gels over 3oz). TO DO print flight & hotel confirmations/directions email itinerary to family/friends pay all bills due while gone notify bank/credit card co when/where you're traveling set out-of-office msg at work remove all non-essentials from wallet GENERAL maps/info/guidebooks pen/highlighter passport photocopies of passport, driver's license, insurance card, bank/credit card contact numbers extra passport photos luggage locks currency converters (printed from oanda.com) cameras, chargers iPod, charger, headphones (not necessary but nice for long plane/train rides) cell phone & charger (only if you have a phone that works internationally and accepts SIM cards) earplugs/eyeshades travel alarm gum/snacks sunglasses reading material reusable water bottle backpack cover (to protect against water, mud, dust, etc. -- a plastic poncho works fine) money belt/neck pouch sleep sack/hostel sheet travel towel (microfiber or another quick-drying material) bandana/handkerchief flashlight/headlamp large ziplock bags (for food, wet clothing, etc.) sewing kit (I had to re-sew some buttons on Greg's shirts) CLOTHING -- this includes the outfit you will be wearing on the plane waterproof jacket lightweight fleece or sweater 4 pants 3 button down convertible shirts 3 long-sleeve pullover shirts 2 t-shirts pajamas swimsuit 4 pr socks 4 underwear Hilo Hatties (rubber flip flops, also good for communal showers/bathrooms and hotel rooms) waterproof walking shoes (mine are Ecco's, Greg's are Merrill's) TOILETRIES hand wipes (for carrying in purse or day pack) toothbrush/paste/floss deoderant soap/shower gel shampoo/conditioner razor/extra blades/shave gel glasses/contacts + spares/solution assorted over-the-counter meds prescription meds (pack enough for a few extra days just in case) asst bandaids, antibiotic cream tweezers, nail clippers, emery board As far as clothing brand names, I swear by ExOfficio and REI. Greg wore ExOfficio Give-N-Go boxers; I wore Soma Vanishing Edge & Amazing Lace underwear (I know, I know -- TMI! :). I like SmartWool or Thorlo hiking socks. Merrill makes great walking/hiking shoes at a moderate price point. Eagle Creek makes the best gear. Love my Maui Jim sunglasses. A silk sleep sack is better than cotton if you're willing to spend the extra money. We did laundry either in the sink or using the onsite washers at our hotels. Clothes dryers are pretty much nonexistent in Europe, so pack a portable clothesline.