A Travellerspoint blog

Bruxelles, la capitale de l'Europe

Begonias, Waffles and Bier

overcast 70 °F

“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
– JRR Tolkien

Not that it's necessarily a bad thing. Brussels has always been one of those cities that was never conveyed to me in a positive light. They'd say OH! Its got churches and homeless people and beer like anywhere else. Not really worth the trip. Quite the contrary. My quick trip to Brussels, Belgium is proof that it is one of the most underestimated cities in Europe. Sure, it has a lot of what other major cities have to offer, but each city is unique and intriguing in its own way. I don't think its fair to judge a place on someone else's experience. Its not fair to the city, nor is it fair to the traveler. A major part of an outlook on a new adventure is just that.. the adventure. Everything that you as a wanderer get out of the experience. The only opinion of a new place that is true is of the one who has personally been there. So who was I to judge? Hence despite all the haters on the capital of Europe, why not hop on over across the pond and check it out for myself? Done and done.

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For me, that initial step into a new place can be pretty nerve-racking. The excitement, the confusion, the variety of languages you hear, constantly in search of one that sounds familiar.. just to simply be pointed in the right direction so you can get the show on the road. Public transportation directly from an airport into a city center is gloriousness in itself. A+ for Belgium in my book already. Two escalators down from the arrivals terminal took me to the friendly attendants for the train, who gave me my ticket, platform number and sent me on my way. About a 20 minute train ride took me from BRU to the Main Central Station, which dropped me off about a 10 minute walk away from my hotel, Hotel Saint-Gery. With the festivities going on in the heart of Brussels that weekend, it was a bit difficult to find a hostel at the last minute. We all know that's usually how my travels are, so I basically had no choice but to book this hotel. That being said, I would absolutely stay here again! The staff was so friendly and helpful, the room was fabulous and the location was perfectly ideal, close to anything and everything.

After dropping the backpack off, I set off towards the Grand Place square. Little did I know until a few days prior that Brussels hosts whats called a Flower Carpet. It is a carpet made of approximately 750,000 begonias beautifully laid out in front of the majestic Town Hall in the main square. This event is only held every two years. Crowds are inevitable in any major city, but oh my goodness. The carpet was a hit. Absolutely worth the trip. My attempt at selfies around varies angles of the carpet was a failed cause. Incredibly thankful for bystanders understanding my lonesome travel struggles! While waiting in line to view the carpet from the balcony of the beautiful Town Hall, I met some friendly Canadians and Parisians who, like most others I meet during my travels, do not even attempt to hide their surprise at my ability to hop across the Atlantic for a long weekend. I do envy those folks as well though. A short bus ride away from all these amazing events and experiences.. I would be so broke from constant travel! Anyways, one of the best 5 Euros I've ever spent. Although it was slightly chaotic making my way up to the balcony with all the other crazy tourists, the view of the entire square was absolutely breathtaking. Don't worry, I won't just leave it at that. More details of what I actually saw in that square follows!

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.
- Seneca

Guys, the weather in Brussels was so perfect that day. This Carolina girl in mid-August is usually fighting to hide the pit stains, so the 60-70 degree weather was welcomed. Since my eye had been on the highlight event of the visit, I had completely disregarded my need for food. I plopped my jetlagged bottom down in a small brunch restaurant adjacent to the square,. My nose immediately filled with some familiar smells. I saw the waiters pass by with waffles (duh!) eggs, french toast, pastries, cheeses, sliced meats, COFFEE. I NEED COFFEE, screamed my inner exhaustion. The entres seemed stupendous, so the fat kid in me convinced myself I needed one of everything. Do not limit yourself on the colorful and delicious wonderful goodness that can be added to your Belgian waffle. The options are endless. Belgian waffle shoppes were scattered about the main square, so I know a fancy waffle would be in my near future. I have to hand it to them.. just a plain waffle with some powdered sugar sprinkled on top sufficed just fine for breakfast. Afterwards, I proceeded to ask one of the waiters where I could find the little girls' room and after some simple banter, he pointed me upstairs in the right direction. Once I made my way down, I politely thanked him and wished him a good day. As I made my way out of the restaurant, I heard a distant "MISS, MISS!" The friendly waiter was attempting to catch up with me to simply jot down his phone number on my receipt! How freaking precious is that. Of course I have no phone that would work over there, so he asked if I would meet him around 2pm when he gets off work so he could show me around the city. Its about 10am at this point, so I say sure! Why not. I have plenty of time to set off on foot and explore some before then. Way to make a girl feel special, sir who's name I do not remember!

As beautiful as the flower carpet was, it was time to venture out of the centre and explore what other wonders Brussels had to offer. Just on the outskirts, the all great.. the all powerful.. the all not-so-giant Manneken Pis awaited. Now, don't get your hopes up with this one. There are people EVERYWHERE. More people than I've seen at the foot of any popular tourist attraction ever. And they are all surrounding this itty bitty bronze statue of a baby peeing into a fountain! All cultures of the world are fighting the crowd to get up close to take a selfie with the costumed statue. Gosh life is funny sometimes! Now what I stumbled upon next are one of my favorites to see.. those random markets that house all kinds of random goodies! From vases to statues to pottery to jewelry, its so cool to see the locals' masterpieces and how they will haggle for them. The market laid just on the footsteps of a gorgeous cathedral Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon. When approaching this church from the square, you don't quite realize the enormity of it. Its a fascinating sight to immerse yourself in, just taking in all of its splendor surrounded by not-so impressive neighbors. But don't worry. Brussels has its own way of surprising you sometimes, just around the corner. Cross the street towards the large patch of greenery and springs. You'll find Petit Sablon Square. It puts me in awe seeing the color green in such an urban setting. Trucking right along.. unfortunately the Palace of Justice was under some serious construction. But just beyond the huge building was a nice, simplistic view of Brussels from above. I hadn't quite realized how far UP I had walked! Not that that's a bad thing.. I needed the workout after that breakfast! Speaking of breakfast! By the time I made my way back towards the Grand Place, it was a little too late to catch my somewhat new found friend. I proceeded to the hotel to check in and freshen up.. there was a beer tour to be had! You all know that this was going to be an inevitable experience while in BELGIUM. DUH!

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Sandemans New Europe Beer Tasting Experience was next on the to do list! There are worse ways to spend a Friday evening. At the meeing place, I befriended a Canadian who moved to London and a Brazilian couple doing a quick European tour. Our guide was an Irish woman and her knowledge of beer was pretty impressive! Not that we should necessarily be surprised.. she is Irish after all! We learned all the blood sweat and tears it takes to perfect the Belgian brew. There is a reason their beer has been put on the map! We went to three different bars/pubs and got to try their specialty beers. God bless this tour because it introduced me to two of my new top favorite beers, Westmalle and Chimay. Holy heavens, they are a craft beer lovers dream. We wrapped up the evening with some frites.. fries.. side note, french fries were actually created in BELGIUM. The story goes that American troops during the war got these fries from folks who spoke French (that's what a majority of Belgium speaks FYI) so they assumed it was the Frenchmen! And so came to be the name French Fries. But Paris sure didn't have Fry Shoppes on every corner like Brussels does!

The next day was a smidgen more gloomy outside than the day before. Clouds were rolling in and the wind was picking up. Good thing I packed my umbrella from Dublin at the last minute! Ironically this was the day for the free walking tour as well.. but like I'm going to let a little rain stop me! With the flower carpet going on, we had to meet behind the stock exchange building. It sounds like it would be a hideous depressing place, but its actually quite beautiful. The hustle and bustle of a weekend morning was among us, so we fought to keep our group close as we moseyed towards the Grand Place. Now, going back to what I was explaining before about what I saw from the balcony of the Town Hall. The building directly across (of the top pictures on this blog, the one on the right) called the King's House, was apparently the old Nazi headquarters in Brussels. Its one of the most hated pieces of architecture in the city and surpringly one of the lower "must see" attractions on Trip Advisor. On the contrary, I thought this building was remarkable. I can imagine given its unfortunate past, it wouldn't be one of the most sought out after visits. My tour guide noted that as far as tourists are concerned, not many people are even aware of this fact. I would think the Belgians do not care to share this piece of history with its visitors, but WWII had such a tremendous impact on the world. Unfortunate or not, I think its very interesting to learn its truth and history, regardless of the reason for its infamization. Surrounding this building, along with the Town Hall and flower carpet, were beautiful Guild Houses. Thankfully we were able to visit the fabulous peeing baby once again and then made our way to the Cathedral of Saint Michael. It is nearly a spitting image of the Notre Dame in Paris. The lovely ringing bells welcomed us as we approached the inclining entrance steps. Just one of those sights that puts you in awe and makes you appreciate the moment.

“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do –
especially in other people’s minds.
When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then.
People don’t have your past to hold against you.
No yesterdays on the road.”
– William Least Heat Moon

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At this point, I'm chatting up some folks in my tour group. Two Americans going to business school in Madrid (Hi Sarah and Ryan!) who were just doing some Euro hopping during their month off. I'm always so grateful when folks take me under their wing when I go on these sporatic adventures. We wrapped up the walking tour together before finding a quaint bar off the main square. Food was certainly in the cards for us kids. Naturally in the touristy district, there were plenty of restaurants to choose from. Apparently, mussels are also a huge crowd pleaser in Brussels. Embarrassingly enough, being from coastal NC, I had never had the slimey shellfish before. Well, when in Ro...Brussels.. right? We ordered a huge bowl for ourselves, alongside a heaping pile of fries with a goblet of Chimay to wash it all down. Not too shabby! Gotta spoil ourselves on our last night in town! We decided on a round about around the square to walk off the grub before we moseyed to the bar.. big surprise that was next on the agenda right? We sure did go out with a bang! Of course, everyone who goes to Brussels has to visit the Delirium cafes. However, I would hardly call them cafes. They serve almost 2500 different beers from around the world! Proof that there is a little piece of heaven on earth. Naturally, the bar is packed full of wild, intoxicated tourists. And who do we share a table with? A bunch of American dudes! Well.. and one crazy Austrailian. Good Lord were they the epitome of American tourists! But naturally a big ol ball of fun. A 10am flight was going to kick my butt the next morning! I wish I could remember the name of the cherry flavored beer they had on draft. If any of you make it to Brussels, just ask which one it is, then order one, then tell me what it is!

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I was actually pretty heartbroken to leave Brussels. It was pleasantly surprising how much fun I had in such a short amount of time. Its awesome when just a mere long weekend can bring you such joy and adventure. When you get home.. or even before then.. sitting in the airport to leave, reality can't even kick in immediately. The heart is still streaming through the alleys of those unfamiliar streets most don't even care to know about. As usual, each trip is just what you make of it. The people, the food, the shenanigans ensued.. destinations can't be judged by others' opinions. The only one that really matters is your own and the experience you make it into. Brussels was a great on-foot excursion, easy to maneuver around and people as friendly as any other place I'd traveled to. Don't judge a book by its cover!

Posted by Courtster 09:16 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)

Wanderlust is Real -- Impromptu to Dublin!

LONELY DREAMER ON THE HIGHWAY IN THE SKY

all seasons in one day 50 °F

"Once the travel bug bites, there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life."
--Michael Palin

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Oops, I did it.. yet again. Before I get into my spur of the moment hop across the pond, I'd like to apologize to those who were actually frequent readers of my blog. I have failed miserably at updating but that just goes to show you how low-key life has gotten for Old Lady Courtney. To be honest actually, quite a lot has happened! Quick run down, since moving back to the grand ol' USA, I went back to my former employer, Piedmont Airlines (Better known as US Airways.. or the new American Airlines.. or whatever the outside world is considering US right now..) Anyways, I got a big girl job as a Systems Training Coordinator in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte life and the J-O-B has been a huge transition for me and I am loving every minute of it. I do most of my teaching in Charlotte; however, when the opportunity arises, I get to scurry all about the country to different airports to teach our various classes. It's quite a blessing landing this job and of course the chance to once again work for the airline industry has its perks.

So now that we're all caught up and you've got the jist of 2014 Courtney, know that traveling for pleasure isn't near as easy as it is when I was a mere part-time ramp agent. Big girl job has its ups, don't get me wrong, but my instincts to just up and go wherever are a bit few and far between. In fact, I have not been able to get my Euro-fix since I came back from Prague a year and a half ago! Now I know you may be thinking.. 'tear tear, tough life you live, girl' but I'll tell ya.. the lifestyle spoils you rotten. But enough of that. Let me tell you the good stuff.

"The impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life." -- Agnes Repplier

I got the bug. That bug that gets into my fingers and reaches for those websites that can get you into trouble. No.. not THOSE websites, silly. I'm talking about the ones that show pictures of beautiful beaches.. or historical landmarks or cheap hostels.. or magnificent bridges and free walking tours. You know what I'm talking about. Those places you've never seen but would love to visit someday. If you know me, I don't like waiting. If I want it done, I want it done now. I want someday to be now. Lets go, lets do this. Here's the thing though. Just to confuse you from the picture above, I was set to go to San Diego, California. Hostel booked, a [vague] itinerary planned, flights looked open (because remember, I 'non-rev', or fly stand-by). I dusted off the good ol' backpackers backpack, packed the essentials the night before. It would be straight from work Friday, Sayonara Charlotte, Hello Sunny California til Monday.

So I'm sitting there at my gate, flights already about 30 minutes delayed. I sit, I read, I'm bored. Lets look at the departure board in the terminal. Hmm, what other flights are leaving right now. Rome FCO.. oh darn, it is leaving right now. Hmm. Dangit, San Diego is delayed another 2 MORE HOURS? No way. Where else can I go? Oh the flight to Dublin leaves soon. I have about 13 minutes to decide. So I mosey a few gates down and ask the gate agents if the flights are still open coming back to Charlotte on Monday. Wide open.. perfect. Oh darn, I packed for 90F weather. I brought no pants! And only one sweatshirt! Oh well, I can buy pants when I get there. Call up the fella to ask what he thinks. His response "I mean, why not?" (they keep telling me he's a keeper and things like that make me believe it). I give the nod to the agents to go ahead and book me. 10 minutes later, I'm on the plane. Friendly piece of advice, friends. It may seem scary, but traveling with your passport can certainly be an advantage! Before the doors are closed, the hostelbookers.com app has me all set up to stay at Spire Hostel for two nights. What the heck did I just do?! Seven hours of behind my eyelids later, we've safely landed in the capital of Republic of Ireland.

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I can't even begin to describe the green-ness of Ireland. Its breathtaking and fresh and it makes you want to frolic like a crazy hippie. I was there to see the big city, but those coastlines I flew over.. I will definitely be back to visit. Moving along, its always funny to me when I go through customs. The agents must feel like I'm joking with them or trying to give them a hard time. How long are you staying, Ms. Courtney? Uhh, two days. Hopefully, at least! No, I do not have family or friends here. No, I don't know the address of where I'm staying, I just know how to get there. I think. For some reason, I get the oddest looks. Tehehe.

New airports are always a little intimidating. You don't want to be that annoying tourist because you want to look like you know your travel stuff. But really, we're lost. And we have no Euros on hand. ATMs are helpful of course, but also a little nerve-racking because we didn't tell our bank we were leaving the country. Always take out more than you think you'll need, just in case they put a hold on your account (which we can appreciate, just in case we were actually some nutzo leprechaun trying to steal our pennies). The friendly leprechauns pointed me in the direction of the Dublin Bus for a mere 2.90 Euro bus ride towards the city center, with free WiFi! 20 minutes later, after a quick pit stop at the nearby tourist office for a free map, I found myself at the Spire Hostel's doorstep. Backpack is dropped off in the luggage storage and we're off to buy pants finally! Its already rained then shined, rained then shined about five times in my time on Irish soil, so I found an umbrella a smart investment as well. Dublin has a different kind of "Pennys" which might be even more awesome than our JC"Pennys" here stateside. 6 Euro jeans and a pink polka-dotted umbrella later, I'm on foot all over this city.

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For those of you who ever travel to Dublin and intend on staying for two days or less, I have the itinerary for you. Of course, anywhere in that short of stay can seem a bit rushed, but you want to see as much as possible right? Right around the corner from the hostel and my new fav Pennys, is O'Connell Street. Lots of shopping, hustle bustle and TOURISTS. Also, pretty much any American restaurant you'd find anywhere else in Europe is here.. in case you need your Papa John fix. But we want the real deal. That Irish grub! Heading down O'Connell, I crossed the bridge on Westmoreland St. towards Nassau and Dawson St. I took a walk around Trinity College, passed St. Stephen's Green and back up towards Kildare St. where numerous (free) museums are. Down further south along the Grand Canal are most embassies. I love that kind of stuff. I honestly wish I had spent more time in the Trinity area. It is sincerely a beautiful sight to behold. The historical significance is immaculate and is worth a greater visit. Merrion Square houses the history of Oscar Wilde and a direct route back to the river by either Shaw/Moss or Lombard St. Like most other cities I've ventured to, Dublin is home to several bridges leading to various parts of the city. I crossed Butt Bridge (lets be honest, that's awesome) because going towards the seaport, you'll pass the Custom House, Jeanie Johnson Ship, etc. But you don't want to hear all about my wandering during the day, do you? I didn't think so.

I had to backtrack a little bit to go back to a tiny restaurant on Nassau St. called O'Sullivan's, for obvious reasons. Apparently ham and cheddar sammages with tomato soup is a big deal in Dublin because dang if it wasn't on every restaurants menu I saw! By this time, I had music on my mind. Walking through the streets of Dublin, especially as the sun is starting to set, you hear the strummin' of guitars and hornlike sounds of the accordions echoing through the old buildings. I was recommended to the Oliver St. John Gogarty Bar for some authentic Irish tunes. I found this place to be in the Temple Bar district, which naturally was crawling with people from everywhere. Luckily, there was a reason why this bar was so packed out. It was apparently the meeting place for the Traditional Irish Music Pub Crawl! Well that just sounded like exactly what I needed to jump into! Thankfully I have no problem talking to complete strangers, so I made friends with two middle-aged couples (surprisingly, most of the crawlers were older folk). It was led by two Irish gentlemen playing a duo. We went to three different venues and were starstruck by the incredible talent beheld in the Irish heritage. I would absolutely recommend this 'crawl' for all ages. It ended around 10:15pm, so plenty of time so go out and explore the other pubs providing their own exceptional music!

I know its touristy, but my old friends were turning in for the night at the end of the crawl.. and I needed to see more! Heading back to Temple Bar, I did some [not literal] crawling of my own. The Old Storehouse Bar and O'Flaughtery's right next to each other had awesome tunes going on, then the Auld Dubliner down the way was poppin' with accordion players as well! It was an awesome experience to see the different musicians in action, whether they were just playing for the tourists or not. No matter the type, I love live music and it showed! I danced with strangers and new friends throughout the night til a ridiculously late hour that I won't even share.. bedtime it was.

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But no time to sleep! Up and at 'em early[ish].. doner kebab on the go because lets face it, it was basically a food group in Praha and I miss it, so no judging. Viking/Medieval and Cathedral Districts were on the agenda for the day. Well, of course I didn't know that at the time, but that's what was stumbled upon and that's where I wandered. City Hall, Dublin Castle, Christ Church Cathedral, which is INCREDIBLE, St. Audden's, St. Catherine's Church.. all these churches leading to.. the Guinness Brewery! Ironic, right?

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The stretch to the brewery seems a little sketch, but don't worry, there's beautiful cream colored beer at the end of the tunnel. A wandering Israeli-gone American was also skeptical about the neighborhood, so we ventured to the Storehouse together, finding intimidating building similar to that of an Irish Alcatraz. The gates of St. James welcomed us finally and we proceeded with the self-guided tour of the storehouse. By far the fanciest tour I've ever been on. As part of the admission, you can pour your own pint of Guinness and get a "certificate" showing you took the "course". Hooray for being a "certified" Guinness craftswoman! It was an awesome experience, but that wasn't the best part. The rooftop bar giving a 360 view over Dublin on a sunny day was the perfect wrap up to the tour.

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The true fruit of travel is perhaps the feeling of being nearly everywhere at home."
--Freya Stark

Dinner at some restaurant I don't recall was sensational. I had West Irish Seafood Chowder with a tall Harp. Mmm, delicioso. Then one more Guinness for the novelty and I was waddling back to the hostel.

It is such a blessing to have the ability to up and go on a whim like I did this weekend. Like I've said, its becoming more and more difficult to get away in big girl life. I've said it and I'll say it again forever, travel is essential. I don't care if you're an individual who likes to go off on their own or someone who is more quiet and needs people around.. everyone should have the opportunity to travel. Study abroad, get out of that comfort zone its so easy to fall back into. There is so much out there, its unreal! Enjoy the chances we are given in our generation. I can only hope to be an inspiration to those around me to pick up and go, especially my younger sisters who are seemingly becoming more and more curious of life beyond the Friendly City by the Sea. I understand it can be scary. I know it scares the crap out of my family when I suddenly fly off to a random somewhere. And I'll admit, wondering around alone, you'd be surprised how much people take notice of you. Looking at your map, reading a historical landmark sign, signing up for a pub crawl, sitting at a bar alone.. people notice. And for the most part, they're intrigued. Again, for the most part, I have been very lucky to not come across some weirdos in my travels.. but its comes with traveling smart. People will talk to you, ask questions, inquire about why you're alone and what brought you there. I look at it as a chance to reach out, learn more about them and more about myself and why I do what I do. Besides the fact that I love to go, of course. I like to think that I find home, everywhere.

Til next time, folks. Cheers.

Posted by Courtster 15:19 Archived in Ireland Tagged dublin guinness_brewery Comments (3)

Heaters, Hurricanes and Halloween

And finally a LEGAL working resident in the Czech Republic!

snow

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Let me back up a few weeks for a minute.. Fall in Prague is officially my favorite time of the year. At the beginning of October, my school took a field trip to the local botanical gardens. This is certainly a hidden gem in the Prague city limits. It is literally a ten minute walk from my work and a five minute bus ride from the Kobylisy metro stop, so it is not too difficult to get to. We took the kids on a walk through the gardens and, oh my, I've never seen so many different colored trees in all my life! The serenity from the colors and the smells of pumpkin and fresh veggies was exquisite.. certainly worth another visit in the near future!

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October 28th.. Happy first snowfall of the season? Wait.. ALREADY? This eastern Carolina girl just had a rude awakening.

I must admit though.. Prague is quite a sight to behold when its blanketed in white. Don't get me wrong, its going to take a while for me to get used to the fact that its going to be below 50 degrees probably between now and February but.. its not something I'll hate seeing every day, eventually.

I woke up (really late) Saturday afternoon to an extremely foggy and flurried Zizkov tower, hearing the joke several times, "those babies must be freezing!".. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday morning, Jiriho Z Podebrad has a local farmers market in the main square, so naturally, to follow the ritual, we headed out for the basic bread and veggies, but this time finding it necessary to bundle up for the 200 meter adventure! Again, being from the Southern US, I don't exactly know what the appropriate clothing is for below 32 degree F weather besides.. A LOT. I just see it necessary to put on A LOT! I also see this early winter as a perfect excuse to do some cold weather clothes shopping!

It was pretty amazing seeing my preschool kids this afternoon playing in the little snow that was left over from Saturday's flurries. For the whopping three centimeters that still covered the ground, most of them were bulked up in their full-out ski jumpsuits and hiking boots! My little butterballs. While me and the other three American teachers are standing there shivering our buns off, the kids where in hog heaven, wallowing in the bushes, trying to get as messy and snowy as possible. Also, some pretty impressive snowmen were in the works too! Never have I ever heard such disappointed when they had to go inside. For their sake (and not so much for my frozen buns) I hope the little bit of snow is still surrounding the Sunny Garden tomorrow!

Posted by Courtster 11:55 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Lietuvos Respublika, From Capital to Coast

Vilnius, Klaipeda, Smiltynes, Palanga

overcast 68 °F

I don't think I have enough fingers and toes to count how many times I was asked "What the heck are you doing in Lithuania?".. mostly from people who weren't even Lithuanian. So I answer as I usually do.. "Same reason you are, buddy!" But honestly, I almost had to ask myself the same question. In Vilnius, I only met one other American, which is pretty uncommon to find so few while backpacking.. and I met none in the other cities in Lithuania. Its so uncommon for the Westerner to travel this far over! But for me, meeting Americans.. its nice to talking to a little piece of home, but wouldn't I have just stayed in America if I wanted to meet new Americans every day? Precisely! So BAM, there we go. Lemme get some Lietuva peeps!

“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.” — Rosalia de Castro

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I was supposed to couch surf in Vilnius, but judging by my previous experiences, I decided to sit this round out. I booked a hostel for a night a few hours before arrived there. My friend, Jelle from Krakow recommended Jimmy Jumps House Hostel in the Old Town Square.. which I will now extend the recommendation to you! It seemed like a very upbeat hostel.. unfortunately I didn't get too involved in the hostel shenanigans since my time in Vilnius was limited. I arrived early in the morning, just before Vilnius was beginning to wake up. I did a bit of wandering around, found me a quiet coffee shop and finally hunkered in one spot for a bit. I swear, the only time during this whole trip that I would sit still and 'relax' was on a stupid bus. It was so nice to have some down time for once, especially since I was going to catch a free walking tour at noon and we all know.. that's where the friends are made!

Let me tell you something about Vilnius. There are SO MANY CHURCHES. After you've done a bit of traveling, sure, you see some pretty ones.. but after a while you realize.. if you've seen one, you've seen them all. So needless to say, my tour group was very grateful that our guide took us off the beaten path to some really interesting sides of Vilnius. We went to a district that was like a country in itself. They even have their own "constitution" that has the most random units.. like "One must always love their cat, if they so choose to have a cat". If only our constitution were so simplistic! Anyways, the tour guide took us to an old [cement?] greenhouse in the woods of the outskirts of the city center. After a climb to the top of the old abandoned building, the view of Vilnius was beautiful.. see picture above!

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But the friends that I ended up sticking close to were a girl from California named Jen (I know what I said about Americans BUT.. shes been travelling for SEVEN MONTHS.. can you imagine?!) and two Belgian fellas named Antonie and Frederic. The four of us and one of the Aussies went to lunch at a highly recommended restaurant called Forto Dvaras. It an underground restaurant, like many of my favorite restaurants here in Prague! GO THERE. And get the cepeliinai. Its a Lithuania specialty.. a sort of happy medium between a thick pancake and dumpling stuffed with meat and cheese and/or veggies. It had a very interesting taste and texture.. worth a try! Sometimes just sitting around a table with people who are so different than you are some of the best memories during travel. I have never had much desire to visit Belgium in the past, until I met some very lovely new Belgian friends! Another perk of traveling: Meeting people that you can eventually stay with fo' free when you want to visit somewhere new! If you remember a year back, when I traveled to Paris.. I stayed with my Aussie friend Erica that I had met in Munich two years prior, who was a nanny in Paris. You never know how things will work out!

Later that evening, I met up with Jen for dinner past the Cathedral square. Its always so neat listening to other people's traveling experiences, especially when they've been to places you've never been before. Jen had traveled in Asia for three months before she began her European shenanigans. Trust me, I made notes of everything she had done! I was a bit bummed, however, when she told me about how amazing Tallinn, Estonia was.. sadly my budget wasn't going to be able to get me that far north.. which of course at this point, I had no idea Riga would be in the mix! After dinner, we wandered around the supposed 'night life' district and found a few busy bars in the area. We settled on a crowded Irish Pub, seemed to have a lot going on! Not five minutes went by when I was approached by a handsome blonde fellow, sounding as American as ever. The first thing has asks me is if I am Lithuanian.. interesting pick-up line, right? When I say no, he replies "Oh dang, I was wanting to meet some local girls". Haha, not really a good follow-up line either. Its the blonde hair, most of north eastern Europe is filled with blonde hair, blue eyed girls, a beautiful mixture of Russian, German and Polish heritage. Of course, the fact that I'm American didn't stop this new friend from spitting some serious game our way, which was more understandable once we found out that he was actually SWEDISH! My goodness, those Scandinavian men sure are smokin'! And apparently Lithuanian men are as well. Two Swedish guys were visiting their three Lituva friends, the latter being the most appealing to talk to. It was a very.. interesting evening with the Swedes, to say the least. Not only was I scrutinized for drinking whiskey at 22, I was also told that I'm not very good at acting 22. Haha. Nothing I haven't heard before I guess. Thankfully, at the Irish Pub, we happened to run into our two Belgian friends again! Absolute life savers. Very gentlemen-like guys. So they were our saving grace for the night.. and all four of us happened to be travelling to Klaipeda within the next couple days as well! Its always nice to see a familiar face in a foreign land. We'll get to that later.. twice actually!

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“The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.” — Amelia E. Barr

On the road again. Five hour bus ride from Vilnius to Klaipeda! I met a nice Lithuanian guy named Otto who was my age, on his way to visit friends and go to a festival in Klaipeda. As a girl who is traveling alone, any time a guy doesn't leave you alone, you always think the worst. All guys seem like creeps at first when you're traveling. But turns out, most of the non-native English speakers just want to practice speaking. Its sort of cool, especially now that I'm an actual English teacher. It's excellent practice for me because I have to constantly be conscious of my speech and talking speed in order to have an efficient conversation with people. So for a majority of the bus ride, I had a nice conversation/teaching session with a foreigner! Pretty awesome. I also learned that he was a plane mechanic at the Vilnius airport. And if anyone knows me, I LOVE airplanes and it made me miss my Wilmington Int'l family so much!

My couch surfing host Nedas and a friend of his met me at the bus station. We grabbed some grub at apparently the best Lithuanian restaurant Klaipeda had to offer. Standard eastern European cuisine.. meat, potatoes, random variety of chopped up veggies. But they were so keen on getting me to the Old Town of Klaipeda to see some sights! We met up with about six more of Nedas's friends and they were kind enough to take me on a little Klaipeda tour by night! It was a quaint little port town. There wasn't very much going on for a Friday night, I got the vibe that it probably only gets really crowded when a cruise ship is docked.. which I later learned is very true! As we were walking along the canal, we stopped at a bench on the water, looked down, and saw a girl sitting on an anchored sail boat, all bundled up, reading a book. She was a Polish girl who had been traveling with six other friends through the Baltic Sea from the coast to Klaipeda. She said they faced stormy weather and shallow waters along the coast.. I can't even imagine! She couldn't have been much older than me and that's her idea of a weekend adventure? Sailing from one country to the next through the Baltic Sea? That is indescribably awesome.

Turns out, my host didn't even live in Klaipeda at all! This actually turned out to be a little bit more annoyed than I would have expected because it meant that I had to solely rely on him to get back into town. We drove the 15 minutes to his residence in Palanga, another coastal village. It actually turned out to have more of a night life in the downtown area compared to Klaipeda and I now wish I would have been able to spend more time there! Next time, next time. Anyways, we made our way back to his house, which is actually his PARENTS house. Very strange, never imagined a couch surfing host to live with his parents.. I feel like that would be a very weird arrangement.. but oh well. It was a very nice house and they had a precious little dog that would hardly ever leave my side. Unfortunately, of course, it didn't speak a bit of English but I guess dogs love you no matter the language you speak! The other somewhat strange part about the house, however, was the pictures of Jesus EVERYWHERE. Apparently, Lithuanians are extremely religious, most Catholic, and they publicly display it throughout their house proudly. Not that I have any problem with this whatsoever.. I just had a little giggle when I went to go brush my teeth and there was a crucifix right next to the mirror, as well as next to every single plug in my bedroom! Oh, culture differences.

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So. Word got out that there are PENGUINS in Klaipeda. Again, if you know me, you'll also know that I have a weird obsession with penguins (Not to the extremity of Jessica Alba in "Good Luck Chuck" but pretty close). So there is really no surprise when I say that the next day I made my way to the Lithuanian Sea Museum and Aquarium to hang out with some cute, furry friends! Going back to my previous statement, downtown Klaipeda was packed because at the end of the canal, there was a huge cruise ship docked! It was a really gorgeous sight.. then as I got closer to it, I realized it was the same cruise line as the one that bellied up off the Italian coast! Haha, oh dear. Anyways, as I'm walking down the main strip towards the ferry port, who do I pass none other than my awesome Belgian friends! Ah, the smallness of the world. Sadly they were on their way to catch a bus to Riga, so I had to bid them farewell.. until I actually went to Riga.. next blog!

I made my way onto the pedestrian ferry for the five minute ride to Smiltynes, an island off the actual Klaipeda coast that separated it from the Baltic. It really could not have been a more perfect Saturday, the weather was absolutely amazing. I just walked everywhere.. went to the aquarium and saw my favorite classy animals, learned a little bit about Lithuanian maritime history and walked down a few paths to see different accesses to the Baltic Sea! I literally felt like I was back at home, just standing on the crosswalk looking at the ocean. Now, when I look at maps of where I was, its such a strange feeling! From land I was looking NORTH. I've never looked straight out at a massive body of water and was looking north.. while being so far up north! Very strange indeed. That night, we moseyed on over to Palanga before heading back home. Travel tip for the coastal cities: Skip Klaipeda and go to Palanga! Its just as close to the sea with a ton more things to do and see. The main boardwalk was absolutely packed full of restaurants, bars, carnival games, souvenir shops, etc. It was a very cool atmosphere. We walked onto a very long pier, which at the end had a giant canvas where people have signed their name and homeland. Naturally, proudly, I carved my name in dark, bold letters right in the center! Courtney USA! When we arrived back at the house, we all enjoyed a nice campfire along with some Lithuanian wine and produce, exchanging stories of our every day lives and our hopes and dreams for the future. Perfect conversations with people you don't know because 1. They'll never know if you actually follow through with them or now and 2. the conversation is endless. You can never learn enough about someone's culture and lifestyle and what the possibilities to become of them are. Apparently, in Lithuania, when you graduate university, if you don't immediately get a job, you must join the military. It makes sense to keep the employment rate down and to keep the standard of their society at top notch but.. still, very strange. As an American, all I see of that is lack of freedom of choice to do what you want with your own life, but.. I guess it keeps you on the path of doing whats best for you rather than sitting on your lazy butt after graduation!

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“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” — Andre Gide

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Lithuania was the most culturally exquisite country I have ever been to. All of Nedas's friends also asked me why on earth I would travel all the way to little bitty Klaipeda.. but why not? It was a new adventure and I experienced a completely different culture than what I was immune to, not only in the U.S. but also in Prague as well. It was nice to have some down time in my constant go-go-go adventures. I was able to witness the post-communistic environment of the Baltic states, the Russian language still just as common as Lithuanian. Lithuania truly is a beautiful country and would certainly recommend it for someone who isn't solely looking for a place to get into shenanigans.. but for someone who is sincerely interested in learning about Cold War and post-Soviet culture.

And in a last minute decision.. I booked a bus to Riga, Latvia! Stay tuned for the last leg of my Baltic adventures.. thanks for reading!

Posted by Courtster 07:39 Archived in Lithuania Tagged bus ferry baltic_sea penguins aquarium vilnius baltics klaipeda palanga Comments (0)

"The Soul of Poland is Indestructible"

Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Warsaw

rain 65 °F

Poland was the greatest surprise for me. The start of the journey was an absolute nightmare, first by missing my 6:30am bus. Add this to your reminders for individual travel: DON'T BOOK EARLY DEPARTURES. EVER. Or if you do, be responsible and go to bed early! But I must admit, in this case, it not only worked out in my favor, it made this trip become one of the most memorable throughout my two weeks.

‎”If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right.” — Roland Gau

The above quote could never be more appropriate. $100 more to get on a 11 hour train ride from Budapest to Krakow. Awful circumstances, right? Well.. yes, that's right. UNTIL that whole new friends thing happens. For no apparent reason, the stewardess lady on the train did not take a liking to me, no idea why. I'm wandering through this narrow train corridor trying to figure out where my seat is, or at least which car I'm supposed to be in.. maybe she was just offended by my lack of Hungarian. I have no idea. Regardless, the sound of the heavens to a lonesome American traveler's ears is fluent English. So imagine my joy when some British folk come up behind me so naturally I ask "Where the hell am I supposed to go?!" Ah, the nice people of the world. God bless you, Amie, Franky and Lee! They happened to have one seat open in their carriage so I joined them for the remainder of the journey.

None of us could say anything about positive as we rolled into Poland. I don't know if it was the darkness or the gloomy weather or the fact that we had been on a train for umpteen hours. We couldn't stop talking about how we would be in hog heaven for some greasy KFC and free wifi and behold.. there appeared to be civilization is this dreadful place! The bus station connected to a huge mall, fully equipped with some life support in the form of.. you got it, KFC and wifi. The original game plan was for me to detach from the group and couch surf with a host who was supposed to leave his key with a security officer at his complex. 'New friends save my life round two'.. walking me to my host's complex.. where, no surprise here, there's no key left with the officer (later write my host of this misfortune, who is more than sorry that it was lost somehow, but no matter anymore..) Long story short, the couch surfing ordeal bellied up and 'new friends save my life round three' commences and they openly invite me to stay with them at their hostel in the center square, which ended up being PERFECT. All in the same room, dorm room with 14 rooms (and a total of three plugs and three showers/toilets, mind you.. gotta love hostels!) Regardless of the mishaps earlier in the evening, we were settled, awake, and ready to hit the ground running in this wonderful, upbeat city.

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We met two Dutch fellows in our hostel, whom we stuck close to during our three-day stay in Krakow. The first night we bounced around the center of Krakow, taking in the more-than-surprising hype of the city. But, on this first full day of being out of birthday mode with my additional year of wisdom, us girls turned in early, mentally and physically preparing for the underestimated dreadfulness and insight of reality that was to come the following day.

This is also when my trip dropped about 25 degrees. I don't think there's ever been a time in my life when I've had to wear a sweatshirt and jeans in AUGUST. We woke up to a dreary, rainy Krakow, which only seemed appropriate since we were planning on going to Auschwitz-Birkenau all day. Our new Dutch friends just so happened to be literally roadtripping throughout Europe, so they offered us a lift to the hour journey to the concentration camp. It was quite an interesting ride, four people packed into the back seat of Rens's little Lexis and 6'5 Jelle squeezed into the passenger seat! At least we had a nice laugh before the inevitable ambiance came about..

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"We are all different; because of that, each of us has something different and special to offer and each and every one of us can make a difference by not being indifferent." -- Henry Friedman, Chairman of the Holocaust Education Centre, Washington D.C.

For most of us outsiders, being those who especially don't have much connection or relation to the Holocaust in general, Auschwitz is typically one of the first things that comes to mind. It has the reputation as one of the most horrific and devastating camps of World War II, which is true. Most websites claim that Auschwitz was built solely for the purpose of becoming a labor camp, which I learned is entirely false. The whole Auschwitz complex is located in Oswiecim, a southern town located about an hour west from Krakow. Hitler annexed this town to start the conversion into the death camp. The entirety of the complex was broken up into three parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II and Birkenau. I was lucky enough to visit the first and the latter. Oswiecim was most appealing because it was actually already built. The history of present "Auschwitz I" is a Polish Army barracks, which shows the incredulous irony in history. So in 1940, the town of Oswiecim watched the accommodations for their country's army become one of the most tragic pieces of 20th century history. Also, at the start of Auschwitz, Jews were not yet the target. Most of the inmates in Auschwitz I were Polish politicians, Soviet POWs, gypsies. It wasn't until 1941 when all of the Jews from Oswiecim were forced out and the construction of Birkenau begun in 1942. My purpose wasn't to give you a history lesson, I know you're reading this to discover my personal experiences and reactions to the death camps. But after my guided tour, I realized how misconstrued history books can be. I feel like, that by actually visiting the camp and being open-minded and receptive to what the place had to say, I learned so much more than in all my years prior.

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Take it from me: Spend the money to do the guided tour throughout these concentration camps. They are free to walk through, but I'd imagine you would not get nearly the same effect you would with a guide. Our tour guide was Polish.. so while she was talking about these events, she would say "my people" and "my country". I have been on many tours in my life, even that of the Third Reich tour in Munich; however, I have never experienced stories of such despair on the very grounds of which I was walking on. At the end of the Auschwitz I tour, we had a little bit of down time before we took a bus to Birkenau for the second part of the guided tour. Another tidbit of advice: You might not want to do this tour alone. Like anything else that one might struggle with, its always a bit easier to be able to talk it out with others, especially when it comes to things we don't entirely understand. We were bombarded with so much disastrous information, we all seemed rather dumbfounded and empty during our break. It was strange, there were several other tourists walking around with children, smiling like it was just an everyday, normal tour. We didn't understand. Some of the things we saw and heard throughout the tour were enough to completely immerse yourself in your own thoughts, at the very least putting anyone out of any sort of good mood. To stand in front of a gas chamber and crematorium.. the words aren't there. There are literally no words to describe the feeling you have in your gut, knowing that where you stood, inhumanity was merely an understatement, a concept irrelevant to the the Nazi's lives.

Birkenau. In my experience learning about the Holocaust, Birkenau was never the first thought when talking about the death camps, for reasons I now do not understand. If you have ever seen the movie Boy in the Striped Pajamas, that is Birkenau. Birkenau was a MASSIVE concentration camp, with two large gas chambers in the end of the railway. Every picture you see, like above, of the bricked entrance with the railroad going through the center.. as seen in every picture we've ever seen growing up learning about the Holocaust.. I can't even begin to explain how strange it was to just stand in its presence. I've never seen a place so eerie.. so eerily quiet. It is true when they say that the birds don't even sing over Birkenau. Well, I saw birds and I never heard a thing. In the early 1940s, there were hundreds of huts in Birkenau, many of which were bombed down during the liberation. All that was left of them was their brick chimneys. However, there were still several huts standing on both the men and women's side. The male huts were made of wood and the women's were mostly brick. Many of the barrack beds were still standing, several decorated with flowers and stones from visitors. We walked along the railroad towards the back of the camp, where the rail carts finalized their journey and the prisoners where pointed in the direction of either the gas chambers or the barracks. The gas chambers are completely destroyed, all that is left is the ruins left from the bombing. The shape of the building is still very noticeable, the mere sight of it makes you sick to your stomach.

There is a beautiful memorial at the end of the railroad in between the two gas chambers. At least twenty plaques like the two below, all written in a different language, line the memorial. This was truly one of the most eye-opening experiences in my life. There are still so many questions circling my mind, I don't think the concept of the Holocaust will ever be fathomable.

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“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” -- Jawaharal Nehru

We all passed out asleep on the ride back to Krakow. Not only was it completely mentally exhausting, I think we all had been lacking sleep for a long time.. backpacking can take its toll on you! And after an emotional day like we just had, some good old fashion shenanigans seemed to be all kinds of necessary! Obviously a tourist trap, yet very popular for a Sunday night, we moseyed to a club near our hostel. Oh my and were the creepers out that night! Very thankful for friends telling giant Brazilian men who follow me to the bathroom that I'm not interested and other friends pretending to be my boyfriend so midget Indian men will stop asking me to dance.. all in all, it was a pretty fun and eventful night to say the least!

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It was a sad day saying goodbye to Krakow. It definitely made a jump to my top five list of favorite cities in Europe.. another visit will have to be in order soon! Ah, I love that.. going somewhere new with absolutely no prior knowledge of what you're getting yourself into. Then again, the ones you travel with and/or meet during your journey makes all the difference in the world. To my new British and Dutch friends, thank you for everything you did to make Krakow a wonderful experience for me! You are always so welcome to pay a visit to Praha anytime!

Bus maintenance to Warsaw. Not exactly the best news to hear when I was already bummed about leaving Krakow.. but finally on our way in the a.m. hours. A five hour bus ride easily turns into seven when you factor in downpours the entire way and bumper to bumper traffic once reaching civilization on the outskirts of Warsaw. Thankfully I was only in Warsaw for about 36 hours, it was literally factored into my itinerary for the sole purpose to get to Vilnius later.. I can say though, that while I was in Warsaw, I had a legitimate Polish meal, consisting of meat and cheese stuffed dumplings and grilled chicken and gravy! Might have been one of the best meals of my entire trip.. AND I DIDN'T EVEN GET A PICTURE OF IT. I don't know what I was thinking!

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Another neat experience I had while being in the capital of Poland was the celebration of Polish Army Day. It was both to my benefit and not, since almost everything in Warsaw was closed. However, while I walking throughout Old Town and in the central district, there were TONS of people walking around carrying Polish flags and singing folk songs. I may or may not have even seen an albino gangster Polish kid rapping in the middle of a square wearing a Braves fitted hat! Haha.. It was so exciting! Polish army men and women were everywhere.. they had stands lining the main streets with old army jeeps and vehicles, planes, guns, supplies, etc. People were able to get in the vehicles and hold the guns to take pictures and what not (I'm pretty sure if this were to happen in America, you'd have to get some sort of permit and file some paperwork in order to get near these massive weapons..)

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“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” — Lawrence Block

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Time to say goodbye to Poland. Such a variety of adventures, emotions, experiences, food, friends, and so much more to speak of, its rather difficult to put it all down on this blog. I feel like I'd covered a lot of ground there, most of it being on a train or bus, going through the country this way and also going back through in the opposite direction the next week on my way back to Prague. The plethora of history on Polish soil is mindbogglingly deep and enthralling. Although not usually at the top of most Westerners' travel lists, I would highly advise going to Krakow and Oswiecim. You will not regret it!

Keep checking back for the next post.. for the next leg of the adventure.. we're making our way up to the Baltic region!

Thanks for reading ya'll!

-----> SIDE NOTE. After I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I bought a book called "Alone in Berlin". Its tells the story of a working man in Berlin who is a part of the Party, until his only son is killed on the front lines.. then he turns against Hitler. Its really good so far, if you're looking for an interesting read!

Posted by Courtster 01:12 Archived in Poland Tagged bus train warsaw auschwitz concentration_camp krakow roadtrip birkenau Comments (0)

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