Friday, August 29, 2008

Adventure #33: Germany

I couldn't leave Europe without a last-minute trip to Germany, where one of my cousins is living. Damon had to stay and work, sadly.

I stayed one night in the village of Baden-Baden, in the western foothills of the Black Forest. Baden means "bath" in German, and the village is known for its springs and bath houses. The Romans enjoyed the baths of Baden centuries ago. Baden-Baden is a very cute town with pedestrianized streets in the city centre. I had dinner in a German tavern and a communal table with some locals, and they told me that Baden-Baden is a very popular vacation destination for Germans as well. Eating traditional spatzle in Germany was quite an experience. Luckily a few people spoke English and could help me with the menu.

Friedrichsbad is the most well-known of the baths, housed in a beautiful, Romanesque building in downtown, so I spent a few hours there on Wednesday morning. This spa truly demonstrated to me how thorough and rigorous Germans are about following rules, having an organized plan. There are 17 stations in the spa, each numbered with four different languages explaining exactly what to do and how long to do it. Taking a shower was amongst the 17 steps about four times -- two minutes per shower. It was military without the enforcement. Very funny.

Around lunchtime, I took a train to Ansbach, near where Troy and his family live. The Baden-Baden train station is located in Oos, outside the village about 15-20 minutes; taxi ride ran me 15 euros. (City buses are available though, and the 205 bus route includes the airport, train station and downtown Baden-Baden. Train travel in Germany, DB Bahn, is just as comfortable and convenient as in France. As previously mentioned, Germans are very organized, so even though you don't speak the language, the train numbers, times, tracks, cars, seats are all clearly displayed and easy to navigate.

I spent two half-days and one full day in Ansbach, located in the region of Bavaria, with Troy's wife, Rachel, and their three daughters: Emmalie, Isabella and Helen. Unfortunately, Troy had to work on Thursday, so all the girls went on a road trip. We stopped first at Langenburg, where we had lunch on the terrace of a cafe (including schnitzel), then walked around the grounds of the castle, where the family of Hohenlohe-Langenburg live today.

Our afternoon was spent in the well-preserved medieval village Rothenburg.
It is a walled city; the architecture was quaint, yet stunning. We took a horse-drawn carriage ride around the cobblestone streets before walking back to the car along a path that runs around the top of the ancient wall of the city.

Before returning to the train station on Friday, I had the chance to watch Emmalie and Isabella perform with their summer theatre group. They'd been working on Greek mythology plays days before I arrived. I then tagged along to the back-to-school barbecue for a few hours, helping Troy running plates of grilled burgers and hotdogs to the buffet table. (He's a chef by trade and volunteered to do all the cooking at the picnic too. He cooked us some great meals each night too.)

The travel Gods sent a strong message on my return day to Ireland: NO MORE TRAVEL. GO HOME. During a hectic train change in Germany, I lost my iPod. My flight was delayed 45 minutes in Karlsruhe-Baden. The security team had a woman with a scale weighing every carry-on bag -- including purses and gift bags -- many people, including me, got turned back for going over the 10 kilo maximum on Ryanair for carry-on baggage. I'd always thought that only included the bag -- not my purse. I should have known the Germans would be following the rules. The flight had the most turbulance I've ever experienced. It lasted at least 45 minutes. My hands and feet were shaking. Luckily, a nice French couple from Alsace were seated next to me, and we talked (some French, some English) to take our mind off the situation. In the end, I actually made my bus -- the last one of the night -- with 10 minutes to spare, even though Ryanair forced me to check my bag (I'd bought a couple heavy gifts.)

It is definitely time to stop traveling and go back to California. :)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Amusing Things We Learned

Here's a list of amusing things we learned during our travels. All useless information to carry around in your head.

- The Mojito is the cocktail of choice in Prague, Czech Republic.

- Eva Longoria is the spokesperson for Magnum chocolates and ice cream in Europe. We saw her face on every ice cream cart we saw in at least five cities. Here's a link to some of her Europeans advertisements too.

- American celebrities lend their high-profile faces to other products where advertisements are only shown overseas, so not to effect their images in the United States. I know I saw George Clooney's face on a billboard in some city, and I was surprised. But I can't remember the product. Have his Nespresso ads aired in America?

- Swedish women (at least those in Stockholm) have great tans, even though they live in the Nordic. I cannot find any information to explain this online, but a friend told me he'd heard they have sun tanning bed-like lamps in their homes because there is so little sun in their area -- and it rains a lot in the summer.

- San Pellegrino is a village north of Bergamo and Milano. And there is actually a San Pellegrino factory there. We passed it on our way to the ski resorts.

- McDonald's in Portugal features a substantial soup menu. We noticed this in Lisbon. According to the Portuguese McDonald's web site, it looks like there might be six soups available. You have to search the tool bar because the site is in Flash.

- Kissing the Blarney Stone can be an unsanitary experience. I did it last spring, but Damon did not. He has issues with other peoples' germs. One of his co-workers recently kissed the Blarney Stone, then got cold sores on her lips the next day. Coincidence?

- There are weight scales on almost every corner in Gran Canaria. We have no idea why. We googled everywhere. Maybe they are simply a weight-conscious island?

- Some Stockholm museums have folding chairs available near the entrances. Patrons sometimes carry these chairs through the exhibits, then use them to sit down when they are tired or would like to rest while admiring a specific exhibit. We saw Swedes walking around the Royal Palace with the black chairs tucked under their arms.

- Baby strollers (or buggies as they call them here) have different covers to address weather conditions, based on the country. In Ireland, the buggies are constantly draped in plastic due to the daily rains. We call them "bubble babies." In Stockholm, we saw baby strollers with socks or sleeves made of thin wind-breaker or tent fabric, which slipped over the seat and had just a small hole for the baby to peek out of.


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Karlsruhe-Baden airport tips

I recently flew out of Karlsruhe-Baden airport for the first time and have a few tips to share.

While living in Europe for one year, I've flown Ryanair nine times. I've never experienced such strict adherence to Ryanair policies as I did in Karlsruhe-Baden, so BE CAREFUL. This was my first trip to Germany, so I learned that Germans are very organized and thorough people; I should have known they'd be following rules with great precision.

Carry-on luggage:
Know your airline's policy on weight restrictions. Please note: that means NOT ONLY your carry-on bag, but also your PURSE or any GIFT BAG you try to carry on. The airport has stationed a woman with a scale at the security entrance. (You might think you're in the clear when your bags don't get weighed at the ticket counter, but they have this sneak-attack approach.) She weighs every carry-on bag TOGETHER -- including purses and gift bags -- to see if customers were going over the 10-kilo maximum on Ryanair for carry-on baggage. Many people, including me, got turned back. To make matters worse, 10 kilo is the max. Period. They won't let you pay to take the few extra kilos into the cabin. I tried to stuff my pockets, but with my purse, I was still three kilos over (due to two beer steins I bought and tried to carry on with my purse). I'd always thought the carry-on allowance included ONLY the bag -- not my purse. I've never had a Ryanair worker or security attendant in Ireland, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain or Czech Republic try to include my purse as part of my carry-on weight allowance.

Checked luggage:
If you think you are going to purchase gifts and be over on your allowance and you didn't pay for a checked bag, go ahead and check a bag online. Don't try to risk it at this airport. I was forced to check my carry-on bag (due to the weight of my purse and gift bag), and it cost me 20 euros -- because I didn't pay online in advance -- THAT IS DOUBLE THE PRICE FOR ONLINE!! Basically, I paid 20 euros to check a bag with six kilos of weight, when the allowance for a checked bag is 15 kilos. A waste.

Based on my experience, this isn't an airport with which budget travelers should try to bend the rules. They even charged me for accidentally booking online check-in. (In Dubin, the check-in attendant didn't even notice.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Tips for a night on the town

If you're new to Ireland (and to Galway), here are some suggestions for a night on the town.

Traditionally, Irish women dress up when they go out; men dress more casually. It's quite common to see girls in shiny designer tops, black skirts and high heels, while the guys are wearing baggy jeans, sneakers and hoodies. It's the same for the nightclubs or the pubs, in our experience. I'm not sure why, but these guys don't need to dress to impress the way we do in many cities in America. The streets in city centre are mostly cobblestones, so it can be tricky with the heels, girls.

Pubs typically serve beer and spirits. Spirits are measured from dispensers on the walls, typically. Coke, cranberry juice or other accompaniments for a mixed drink are served in small bottles on the side. Fancy mixed drinks or drink menus are rare. We've yet to find a place that serves them. Order the Guinness or Blumer's. They're good. You can get a good margarita at Cactus Jack's but you have to eat dinner to be served a drink. (But the margarita is small and runs 8 euros.)

Nightclubs will run you 10-15 euros per person to enter. Drinks are typically 5 euros per (beer, wine). Halo is a smaller version of the types of clubs you find in Las Vegas and New York. Very hip vibe. The music was a little disappointing at Halo; it's a mix of hip-hop, eighties, pop -- and everything in between. (Once again, women dressed to the nines; men dressed like gang members.) There is a coat check at this nightclub. If you have particular music interests, it's best to ask around and find out which DJs are playing where. The DJs have different styles. DJs vary week to week at the following well-known clubs: such as Cuba and De Burgo's.

We really like the Living Room, although we had trouble getting them to serve us mixed drinks from their menu after 9 p.m. because they were "too busy" and only wanted to serve beer and wine. Hello, service? We returned a few days ago and asked to see the drink menu again. The bartender told us it had been canceled because no one ever ordered off the drink menu.

The last public buses leave Eyre Square around 11 p.m. on weekends. Taxi stands are located on Eyre Square near the Supermac's and Dunnes clothing store (and near the Hostel by Merrick Hotel), as well as at the end of Quay Street near Jury's Inn.

They say you don't need to tip at the pubs in Ireland, but that seems strange. We still leave a little bit (10-15 percent), although they don't come by and pick it up right away. I've been told it's proper to offer to buy the bartender a pint before you leave to show appreciation.

Best of Galway

As our year in Galway comes to an end, we'd like to share our own "best of" list:

Best Pubs:
Tig Cóilí is one of my favorites for socializing and listening to authentic, live music. It's across from the Kings Head in city centre. It's always packed: a good sign.

Tigh Neachtain’s (Naughtons), located across the street from the Quays, is another favorite. The blue and yellow building is easy to spot. If you like privacy, this is a fun pace to enjoy a pint. There are weathered, wooden alcoves located throughout the interior. Lots of tables for people watching outside too, but those are typically full.

Our local-local favorite -- the one that's walking distance from our apartment -- is O'Connor's of Salthill. The decor can only be described as flea market meets taxidermy store meets antique shop. It's so funky cool. The music has been more blues/rock than Irish folk when we're been there, but it's always good. We love sitting at the sewing machine and drinking a pint. The church pew seats aren't that comfortable, but they've got character. A real charming place.

Best Restaurants:

This is a tough one. We've been very disappointed with the restaurants in Galway. But we've had some great meals.

The new Asian Tea House is excellent. Great ambiance, prices and quality: a rare trifecta in Galway. Hip vibe. Take a date there to impress.

The Thai Garden near the Spanish Arch is pretty good.

For a slurge, drive 15 minutes out to Barna and visit O'Grady's on the Pier. Probably our best Irish-style meal on the West Coast, but we paid around 100 euros for two.

Best Groceries:
If you're American and looking for many of the same ingredients you enjoy back home, Tesco is the best bet, in my opinion. I boiled bouillon cubes to make chicken stock for months when I shopped at Dunnes.

The farmers' market in Galway in the city centre on Saturdays and Sundays is also nice.

Don't forget to bring your canvas bags to the store whenever you shop anywhere in Ireland.

Best Pizza:
We're going to go with Milano here. Others might argue for Da'Roberta in Salthill, but frankly, I've eaten pizza at Da'Roberta twice, and it was burned both times. Milano's crust is more thin and crispy; Da'Roberta's is thin and soft, more like a traditional pizza from southern Italy.

Best Hike:
At low tide and in good weather, it's nice to walk along the path from Blackrock (just west of the diving board in Salthill) out to a medium-sized cliff. It takes about 30-40 minutes to walk, and you need to go at low tide to get across. Lots of seashells to be found along the way.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Adventure #32: Stockholm

Our fascination with Stockholm stems from the fact that the city is comprised of 14 islands and roughly 50 bridges. There are actually 24,000 islands and inlets in the entire Stockholm archipelago, which extends from the city about 60 kilometers east. When Damon told me this last fall, we decided to book our August bank holiday getaway to Sweden.

We assumed that August would be the best time to go, considering the country's Nordic location. What we didn't know is that Stockholm receives most of its rainfall during summer.

Flying to Stockholm direct from Dublin on Ryanair (arrival at Skavsta airport, about 100 km from Stockholm) actually took longer than we expected (about 2 hours, 45 minutes). Most flights to anywhere in we've been in Europe are around 2 hours. Sweden is really far north. :)

The bus service from Skavsta to the main train/bus station in downtown Stockholm is very convenient, like most buses that operate their schedules in conjunction with Ryanair schedules. We got a great deal through (third night free) at the Mornington Hotel, located in the Ostermalm district. This hotel was about a 25-minute walk from the main bus terminal and only 10 minutes walk down to the water. We were very pleased with the location, service and complimentary breakfast.

Stockholm is an easy city to navigate. We walked everywhere. One piece of advice on transportation in Stockholm: taxis are VERY expensive. During a very rainy Saturday, we decided to take a taxi 3 km (about 5 minutes) -- it cost us about $30. So, walk or bus or metro are highly recommended. Although it did rain during our trip some days, it was quite warm in early August. We wore shorts our first day and were very comfortable (and thrilled considering the Irish weather). There were lots of tourists in town due to EuroPride 2008 -- what fun to explore the city during Europe's biggest gay festival. Lots of great people-watching.

Some of the highlights of our trip included:

Day 1:
- Walking down to Skeppsholmen island and Gamla Stan island (the Old Town district)
- Having drinks at an outdoor cafe near Berzelii Park

Day 2:
- Touring the Vasa Museum to see the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628

- Walking around the island of Djurgarden

- Taking the Hop-On Hop-Off ferry through the city

- Touring the National Museum, which had a very cool clock exhibit and houses Sweden's largest art collection, including some great French Impressionist pieces

- Visiting the Noble Museum in Gamla Stan, then enjoying a great Italian lunch al fresco on the Stortorget square

- Strolling along the Strandvagen boardwalk and buying Swedish lakrits from street vendors (the word translates as "liquorice," but it is sugary-sweet, stringy and tastes -- and looks -- like gummy worms)

- Playing games and watching a Swedish band perform at Grona Lund amusement park

- Having drinks at the Radisson hotel lounge (sadly the Sky Lounge at the Radisson Viking was closed when we went -- but it's highly recommended for the views)

Day 3:
- Walking about 50 minutes outside the city to the Kaknas Tower to see the views (not recommended -- the views at the top are obstructed by fence wire and views inside the cafe just below the top are obstructed by a wooden railing that surrounds the 360-degree windowed room)

- Walking through Kungstradgarden, Gamla Stan again (we loved the Old Town)

- Touring the Stockholm Palace, neighboring church and watching the changing of the guard

- Climbing to the top of the Stockholm City Hall tower, where we enjoyed great, unobstructed views and even caught a rainbow on film (lines are long for the tower because they limit the number of people; be prepared but the views are great)

- Dining at Marten Trotzigs restaurant next to the famously skinny Marten Trotzigs street where we ate some local cuisine (such as lingonberries, reindeer and Swedish elk meatballs)

It was a very relaxing vacation. Stockholm isn't great for budget travelers -- it's an extremely expensive city, on par with cities we visited in Switzerland. We knew that going in. Swedish women fit the stereotype: almost all women we passed on the street were tall, blonde, thin and chesty. Lots of model types! They were also extremely tan, which we found bizarre. Overall, it was another enlightening destination. We probably wouldn't come back, but we're glad we can say we've seen Stockholm.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

New Bus Station in Galway

Earlier this month, a new bus station opened in Galway. It's sleek and modern; we were very impressed when NestorLink called the night before our flight to Stockholm to let us know that our bus from Galway to Dublin had changed locations.

I'm seeing lots of bulletin board posts online with confusion about the new location. I can't believe I google and can't find a story with pictures and directions to this bus station.

Anyway, it's very to easy to find. It's one block northeast of Eyre Square on the corner of Forster Street and Frenchville Lane/Fairgreen Road. (I've seen maps with this road listed under both names. Scary, but typical.) It sits behind the Radisson Hotel, across the road from the main tourism office in Galway, which has also been expanded and redesigned. The old coach station is directly across from the Radisson; you can see the new bus station from the old one. It's a large, shiny, tinted-glass-windowed building. It was designed my McNamara Construction. Their web site describes the mixed-use building. The picture below taken from the McNamara web site is an accurate depiction of the building. There is seating inside the station, and all of the buses are parked in a covered garage -- much nicer than the old parking lot set-up, where travelers had to stand in the rain waiting for their buses.

One stickling point for us: The new coach station requires you to pay to use the toilet. I think that is total crap (pardon the pun). It's like paying to use the toilet at a freaking airport. I can't believe they got so cheap to try to pay for this beautiful, new building.

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