Prague – Perfection and Crowds

Prague is the world-famous capital of Czech Republic. A European city which managed to save most of its buildings during the war, it is now overwhelmed with tourists.

Getting here

We arrived in Prague after a night on the Budapest-Prague train after having missed our original train in the day. Due to missing the night in the hotel, our first day was like the road runner seeing one place after another.

Old town and Bridges

Our first destination in Prague was the Old Town Square with the town hall, skinny lanes and the astronomical clock. We arrived as the 11am bells were about to go off on the clock tower and it was jam packed. Literally, thousands of people who are normally walking around, simply stop and stare at the clock. As the clock struck 11am, the skelton doll started ringing the bell. Tick!

The old town square is so beautiful, it must be the prettiest we saw in the 4 cities we visited. All cities had their town squares but none as big or as protected as Prague. There were multiple churches, restaurants, statues and other usual things but nothing beat the church spires which were unique compare to the ones in Germany, Austria and Hungary. As we ascended the clock tower, the full glory of Prague’s beauty was upon us. Again, red roofs, the spires, the surrounding hills and the crowds below made it quite unique.

We saw the same view again during the night as the ticket allows 2 entries to the clock tower. Prague wasn’t as brilliantly lit as Budapest but it still provided some great shots.

Just a short walk from the Old town square is the Vltava river, a lot smaller than the danube, it is a river which descends down around the bend of Prague. The city is practically built around the river bends. Charles Bridge which is the 15th century bridge still survives complete with its hundreds of years old statues. Lots of people sell their wares on the bridge, paint caricatures and walk around. The Pragu castle is on a large hill above the Charles Bridge and the view is majestic!

Prague Castle

We visited the Prague castle on the second day. The circuit ticket allowed us to see 2 churches, the golden lane and the castle walls. To be honest, the ticket wasn’t necessary to understand the castle. Most of the free areas allow the view of the best parts of the castle. The churches while grand were no different to those of other parts of Europe.

I really understood the European obsession of the separation of Church and State in Prague Castle. St Vitus church is the royal church of Prague. Entire dynasty of kings ae buried here along with archbishops, etc. Some of the saints were also kings and royals. How do you become a Saint being a royal? I assume you just paid the Pope or did a favour for the Church. Next thing you know, the people are praying to you. This sort of thing doesn’t exist to this level in English speaking countries or in India where we were born. There is no strong opinion of the separation of Church and State because most people haven’t seen royals become saints in living memory in India. Moreover, even if there are gods and godesses from the royal lineage, they are not buried/cremated in state temples.

The 2 churches were of different time periods but of the same theme. The golden lane was an interesting concept with old houses along the castle walls being kept as they were originally, a mini museum. It was good but nothing that couldn’t be missed, especially given the hundreds of people lining up for each house in the lane.

Jazz boat tour

We missed it in Budapest so decided to do a boat tour in Prague. Not any boat tour but one with a Jazz band playing. The tour started at 8:30pm and ended at 11pm. The band was great, the food ws great and the views of the city were spectacular. We got to see more of Prague than we would have if we had done it ourselves on Public Transport. A must do!

Shopping

While we shopped in Budapest and Vienna, Prague was different. Here was something that Czechs actually produce and are good at: Crystals. Shruti has a liking for them as her mum collects Crystals. We bought crystals for gifts from near the old town and were very happy with the price.

Final word

While Prague is incredibly beautiful, it is also incredibly crowded. Other than the buildings which are protected, Prague isn’t all that different to other European capitals. It is also quite expensive when considered that it is in the former eastern bloc. Having that, it is still a good visit for a day or two.

Budapest – City of Life

Budapest is the capital of Hungary, a city of 1.5 milion people. Hungary was a part of the former eastern bloc and it is this history which has shaped Budapest of today.

Getting here

We arrived from Vienna in a 3 hour train ride in a Slovak train. Budapest Keleti station is a relic of the past, built in the old times, it can do with some cleaning. We realised we were in Eastern Europe the moment we arrived in the train station. There was a neglect of the historic buildings which would not be seen in Western Europe.

Budapest Life

Unbeknowst to us, its prosperity combined with it’s cheap cost of living had Budapest thriving. Tourists, expats and locals were living in a city which while protected the best places also neglected many beautiful buildings. There were hippy markets, hundreds of restaurants and people selling everything from sightseeing tickets to marijuana on the streets.

Hop on and off

You know how we said we won’t do touristy things and won’t go to the museums? Well, we ended up changing that after Vienna. In Budapest, we bought 2 tickets to the Hop on/off buses and away we went. The buses were being run by multiple companies and arrived every 10-15 minutes.

Historical Buda

Budapest is actually twin cities of Buda and Pest joined together by the beautiful chain bridge in 1849. Buda was the capital of the Roman Empire while Pest was mostly a village. Buda had the Gellert hill, Buda Castle and the museums. Gellert Hill was our first stop in Buda with spectacular views of the city seen from a high dolomite hill overlooking the Danube River. It’s Soviet history was present witht the ‘Statue of Liberty’ soviet-style still present symoblising peace.

Castle Hill was another smaller hill overlooking the Danube with a history going back 2000 years. This was the capital of Roman Empire, various tribal empires and finally, the Hungarian and Turkish empires. We spent a few hours seeing the museum in the Buda Castle which was actually several levels of old palaces on top of one another. The castle right at the bottom was medieval while the top was only a 100 yars old. The Hungarian archaeologists did an amazing job saving the medieval castle from the city authorities who wanted to blow the hill up and put something else on it.

Underneath the Castle hill was the Castle Gardens, Bazaar and trams and road before reaching the Danube. We didn’t know this but the Danube is quite a wide and well-traveled river. It’s a trading river which various empires tried controling. Budapest was controlled by Romans, Germans, Turks, Hungarians and Austro-Hungarians at various points in history. The result was a city with a mixed culture and a mixed people who are now all Hungarian.

Pest

Pest was where we were living in Budapest. Pest is the flatter, grand, new and more touristy side of the city. Despite this, Pest contrasts Buda and it’s beautiful in its own right. Baroque ad Gothic buildings stand next to newer buildings with Pubs and Kebab shops. The inside streets are beautiful even if a little rustic. There is cobble stone almost everywhere in Budapest and it looks incredible though it is a pain to drag the luggage on it.

The Heroes Square and the surrounding suburbs were an incredible sight of Pest. Heroes Square is dedicated to the 8 clans of the Magyar Tribe who came to the Carpathian Basin and conquered it from the Slavs. Magyars are what we call Hungarians. The heroes square had the broze statues of the Hungarian warriors on Horses with huge moustaches and beards. Several other ancient heroes, those who converted Hungary to Christianity and continues the dynasties are also present. The Heroes square is incredibly grand with grey stone everywhere against the greenish broze statues. The surrounding area has a beautiful castle which is now a museum as well as huge mansions of prominent Hungarians and Embassies.

Another highlight of the city was the Parliament walk at night. We walked on the Buda side at night to capture the parliament all lit up. The Hungarian parliament was built on the Pest side to contrast the royal side of Buda and each night it is lit up along with the bridges over the Danube. It is really an amazing sight.

There were other historical buildings we saw like the National Museum, the Great Market and the second largest synagogue in the World. All of these were beautiful buildings and all provided Budapest its character. Budapest really was beautiful and rustic at the same time. This was what we loved about it, it was a real city with real people and not a tourist wonderland or a city with fake grandeur.

Restaurants and Ruin bars

Our locality, Goszdu was originally in the Jewish quarter where during the second world war, a wall was put up creating a jewish ghetto, forcing the jews to live in squalor without food or medicine. Eventually, the Nazis exterminated thousands of these jews. Despite this cruel history, Goszdu today is a lively neighbourhood with restaurants, bars, cafes and ruin bars. One of the small streets was converted into bars and restaurants and appartments built all around it. Unknowingly, this is where we ended up living. We’re no party animals any more but we could literally have partied all night and gone up to the appartments. It was a really great area.

Ruin bars are a Budapest invention. Due to neglect many old buildings were falling apart in the Jewish Quarter and in 2001, some guys thought of creating a grungy, rustic bar which put the neglect on its chest proudly. This was Szimpla bar which is now an institution. Every tourist and party bus stops here in a tiny street to visit this one of a king mecca. Inside, the theme is old and rustic. There are bathroom doors with telephone for handles, old pc screens displaying graphics and a housy beat playing. Oh and the place is qute dark with a Sheesha room.

We visited another ruin bar closer to home which was also following the old rustic theme but much less crazy than Szimpla. The point is the same, apreciating the old buildings by keeping them as is instead of renovating and making it look like bars around the world. The party was hotting up as we left around 10:30 full of people from all over the world.

Currency

Hungary does not have the Euro and we had to convert our remaining Euros into Florints. It is around 300-350 per Euro depending on the rate though we got it pretty bad using the money changers at the train station. An average meal for 2 people cost around 5000 Florints.

+1 day

We had scheduled around 2.5 days in Budapest with a 4pm train to Prague. However, call it our stupidity but we arrived at the wrong train station missing our train. We again made a mistake of not taking the bus to Prague and took the night train instead. We ended up waiting an extra 6 hours in Budapest. We spent this time in Starbucks and the local mall shopping and eating.

Remember, there are 2 international train stations in Budapest, Keleti and Nyugati. Check which one the train goes from. It cost us an extra 100 Euros because we thought it was the former where our train left from. As a side kick, Our night train at 8:25PM didn’t ended up leaving until 11:30PM. Not a pleasant experience being too hot in a 6 people cabin shared with Chinese students.

Final word

In one word, Budapest was AWESOME! Unlike the other cities we visited, Budapest had a real vibe to it. It was the capital of a developing country but it felt as much non-european as it felt european. It was also a little cheaper which helped us in shopping.

Vienna – Grand and Historical

Not many place in the World can claim to have started a World War, Not many places in the world can claim to have had several of Classical Music’s greats at the same time and Not many places can claim to have given various foods to the world. Vienna is one of the cultural capitals of the world.

Cafe Central
Vienna is famous for it’s coffee and coffee houses. They don’t get anymore famous that this one. We arrived at 8:30 am to a grand building on the corner with waiters dressed like 5 star restaurants. We ordered a Viennese breakfast and a ‘healthy’ breakfast. In addition, I had the Vienese coffe called Melange.

It was a substantial breakfast not only in the contents but also knowing that some of Vienna’s best had had breekie there. All in all, it wasaround 30 Euros for the breakfast but certainly worth it.

State Hall Museum
As we started walking around Vienna, we realised that we had no idea what we wanted to see. Our first stop after the coffee house was the State Hall, part of the national library. It was a large hall which was the personal library of the kings of Vienna. On first look alone, it was impossible to believe how Grand it was. Practically everything was gold painted, the cielings were 3 stores high and the Kings were all marble statues. It is impossible to think how much money was in Vienna for a library to have been so big.

In addition, there were examples of works kept in the national library – maps, manuscripts and writings of some of the greats of every field in their age. They even had near perfect maps of India and Western Australia before Australia as discovered.

Graben and Stephansplatz
Graben is the Pitt St Mall of Vienna. However, it is 10 times the size and hundreds of years older. All the luxury retailers had stores there. We decided to shop a little and take some stuff back home. The Graben also has various cafes with people enjoying the Sun and drinking coffee like many European cities.

There are various churches in this area and the best was Stephans platz. Despite the maintenance going on, it was still incredibly beautiful. It’s hard to think that cities this these were nearly wiped out in the 2 world wars but still look so pretty today. There’s cobblestone in most places, the buildings in the centre have a strict guideline with which to build and no building can look ultra modern or not adhering to the architecture.

We even took a trip up the tower of St Stephans church. The view of the city was immaculate and we saw lots more churches, historical buildings and even the new city. The area in the centre included the Castle of the Hopsburg dynasty and other historical Government buildings.

Confusion

We had decided to not visit museums earlier but there was nothing much else in Vienna. To top it off, there were more than 50 different museums. Whi one should we visit?

Whenever we settles on one, there would be another nearby just as good. I, personally, was overwhelmed. I just wanted to experience the city and the culture but the issue was there were so many museums which we could not possibly cover in 1.5 days.

In the end, we ended up going to some museums anyway. Plan of not visiting museums? fail!

Welt Museum

We got here late in the afternoon. The welt museum is part of the Vienna Castle. Outside the museum, Grand buildings and gren spaces exist in every direction. It is almost hard to imagine this grandeur.

We were here to see the music instruments museum but the ticket was for the entire museum. First stop was the historical armoury. This was the real knights in Crusades stuff. So much metal on show for the Knights.

One of the problems was the museum is almost completely in German with almost no English. We got the gist of the timescale of this time. There were incredible full Knight Armour, horse armour and weapons of various dynasties in the region. We had a good laugh at some of the Knight armous though. Many had ben built for fat Knights, others could hardly see anything from their helmets and some even had metal cups which were for “excitement” in battle.

The musical instruments Shruti wanted to see was a bit of a let down. Instead of an interactive museum, it was a collection of every type of musical instruments, from a period of 300 years. Great but we couldn’t read much which was not in English and most of the instruments were not unique(at least for us!)

Hauss der Musik

We stumbled onto this music museum accidentally while on the way to a brewery. Originally, a part of the Vienna Phillamonic Orchestra, it now housed some amazing information about Classical music in Vienna.

It was very interactive form the start with piano stairs for everyone’s pleasure. I mean it’s such a great idea, everyone had fun. It was like being a toddler with noisy shoes again.

There were experiments and sciece of Sound with lost of interaction to produce sound and understand how the ears work. There were areas of the top 3 of Vienna – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It is not our type of music but we still like it. A great museum!

Brews

Vienna like Munich is home to hundreds of beers. People drink beers here at all times. We tried 2 breweries, Weiden Brau and 1516. The former was very Viennese while the latter very American. A key difference is the naming of beers. Pale Ale and Dark beer are an English thing while Germans prefer Helles and Dunkler.

Conclusion

Vienna was a hit and miss for us, mainly through our own fault. We didn’t do a walking tour so lacked the local knowledge while not visiting the information centre early enough mean we couldn’t decide what to see. Having said that, it is an incredible city whose grandeur no doubt rivals Paris!

The Alps Drive

The famous alps of Germany and Austria. This is a diary of our drive through the alps seeing Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles.

Getting the car
We had initially booked a Toyota but decided to go for a Mercedes C class. Upon getting to the car, we realised that not only was the driver side the opposite(like US), the controls for the Merc were completely different. Being a bit dark in the car park, we couldn’t see the seat adjust, parking break and the navigation was in German which took a while to change. It took us a good 30 minutes before we were on the road.

Heading South
We headed South from Munich through Holzkirchen where we were staying. The first 20 minutes were a little scary driving through tram tracks and driving on te other side. Once on the Autobahn, we were flying at 130km/h average. That wasnt to last long before there was a accident on the road and we had to take the inside road to the monastery which was our destination.

We found the monstery completely randomly from Google and decided to go for photos. It was also close to the cute historic town of Bad Tolz and we enjoyed the drive there. Once there, we discovered the incredible views from the monastery and a packed beer garden. It was as Bavarian as they come with people making a day trip to the Bad Tolz region by cycle or car and stopping at the monastery for a meal and beer. Finding a seat in this place was itself an adventure, there were more people than tables and it was a picteresque day, not a cloud in sight.

We eventually got a seat when some nice people alerted us that they are leaving. It was good they told us as we were getting sun burnt waiting for a seat and had no German skills to ask nicely. We ended up being seated next an old German couple who’s kids were travelers and working overseas. We had great conversations with them, though being German, they were pretty clear-cut. India is dirty and they have a funny religion, said the old lady. Well, Dankeschen for the conversation and translation and Gut Got!

Bad Tolz was the next town and we tried to go there. When I say tried, I mean we got there, drove around and couldn’t find a single parking space. It was a Sunday and everyone was out to get the sun, bier and the river in Bad Tolz. Oh well, Auf Wiedersehen Bad Tolz!

Drive to Seefeld
The next two hours were spent driving towards the edge of Bavaria into Austria with a few stops. We stopped at a lake in the alps with people wind surfing everywhere. It was nice to se real Germans doing real German things. To be honest, it wasn’t all that different from Kurnell on a hot Sunday afternoon except the language and landscape. This was not the Europe we expected!

Our next stop was the town of Garmische-Patsikern as the Sun was nearly setting. We ended up going for a walk to nowhere. What I mean is, it was a walk to a Gorge but seeing the evening cold and the darkness approaching, we decided to head back. Still, it was through beautiful woods and farms with Alps now next to us. The Bavarian/Austrian architecture of hardwood was close up to see and it really looked like we were in Europe.

As the Sun set, we reached our hotel just outside of the town of Seefeld in Austria. To be honest, we never realised when we cross the border until the flags on Pubs changed. It is quite refreshing seeing Europe not have serious borders. Our Hotel was on top of a large hill with the valley below and Mountains on all sides. Our room had an awesome view of this vista and we took as many pictures of the sun set as possible.

Onwards Neuschwanstein Castle
As we left our Hotel the next morning, we knew we had to rush to the Castle. We had to be back in Munich by 3pm to return the car and catch the train. As we headed down from Seefeld into the valley, we passed by the town of Telfs. It was even mre beautiful than Seefeld with Mountains shadowing it on sides. We had no time to stay and rushed towards the Fernpass onto Germany.

Our only stop on the way was a small castle sitting on top of a hill in the pass. Why would anyone live in this place? It must b covered in snow for many months. Was it to control the pass? We couldn’t ask those questions and there was no museum or time for us.

We saw another castle on top of a mountain next to the highway but it looked abandoned. We couldn’t believe why anyone would build so many castles in the high mountains where historically, it would take days if not weeks to reach. As we reached Fussen, We coudn’t believe the beauty of the place. The town of Fussen itself was so beautiful with historic buildings and a castle on the hill. We kept driving to Neuschwanstein and Hoheschwangau castles.

Hohenchwangau was built by King Maximilian II after he liked the area around the castle and Neuschwanstein was started by King Ludwig II as a dream project. After parking, we went to the Bavarian Kings museum. It highlighted the history of the Wittelsbach kings and a good one at that. The monarchy sadly ended in 1918 but Bavaria’s two main attractions, Oktoberfest and Neuschwanstein castle were both the gifts of the Wittebachs.

Sadly, the best view for the castle, the brook bridge, was closed on the day. We walked upto the castle and took a few photos of the castle itself and the surrounds. Oddly enough, some of the best views of the castle were on the way back. The castle looks much better with from below and from a distance.

As for the king who started this dream, He was made the King at 18 years old which seemed to have hurt him somewhat. He was forever suffering from mental issues and was not capable of the geopolitics in Germany around 1870s when Germany became a nation. His dream wasn’t complete when he died, he was removed as the King in 1875 after spending too much time away from the public eye and probably the powers that be in Berlin didn’t want him to be the King of Bavaria. Sadly, the Mad King gave the world, one of the most loved Castle and a major tourist attraction for Bavaria.

For the record, we never bought the ticket to go inside, partly because we wouldn’t have the time and partly because the castle’s beauty is in the outside(the King never lived there). Our only costs in the area were the parking, museum and snacks. We also took some shots of Hohenschwangau Castle built by Maximilian II but again, we never had enough time for seeing it. The whole area requires 1 full day to be able to see everyhig including Fussen, Hohenschwangau and Nueschwanstein.

Return to Munich
The drive to Munich was reasonable, though, there is Autobahn close to Fussen. Using the B highway was a bit annoying as we went through villages every 5-10 km apart with the speed going from 50-70-100 every 20 minutes. Shruti slept on the way back and I drove all the way to the drop off before realizing that we had not filled the Diesel. The Avis inspector was good enough to let me drive to the petrol station and fill up.

P.S. – Be very, very careful when hiring a car in Germany(or maybe Europe). As we return the car, the inspector(who was still nice) told us of a scratch in the front. We had never noticed this and had never hit anything, the scratch was like a parking scratch at the front. Though we didn’t have to pay anything, the inspector told us that car companies make money off scratches. Be very careful, take a video of the entire car and take the $0 excess.

The End

Our time in Yellowstone came to an end and that meant our epic trip was coming to an end as well. We had to get back to San Fran, return the camper and then fly home. This was it, one year flew past in no time. Like they say, time flies when you are having fun!

We decided to ease the return trip, stop as much as we could and enjoy the last few days. On the way back we drove through parts of Montana, Idaho, Nevada and California.

The start of the end

Montana was a blur on the road and landscape hardly changed. Idaho, on the other hand, was flat, green and full of water. The places on the west of Yellowstone and Grand Tetons were perfect for fishing.

Montana, USA

We stopped at Twin Falls, Idaho, to indulge in the famous potatoes. Apparently McDonald’s used potatoes from Idaho for it’s french fries. They are grown all over and were really good! We decided to wrap up driving for the day and ended up in a RV park not too far from Twin Falls. We got there around 3pm+, showered, had our chairs out when a neighbour came over for a chat. Turns out he was a US veteran who had been driving from South Carolina to California. A journey of thousands of miles and the guy ended up injuring himself in the process. But we enjoyed the sun go down and chatted away from couple of hours.

Twin Falls, Idaho, USA

Nevada. Again.

The drive from Idaho to California meant crossing Nevada! We were going through the desert, crazy wind and heat all over again. We stayed 2 nights in Elko in a RV Park run by the Hilton group. After freshing up, we were ready for some action but it seemed like there were only casinos around. So we spent the day chilling in the air conditioned visitors centre, playing Scrabble and sipping on ice water. This helped fight the heat as the tempratures were easily in high 30s.

Elko, Nevada, USA

After a rest day, we were fighting the winds again to arrive in the town of Reno. This is in the north end of Nevada state but looked like mini Vegas. We of course parked ourselves in the RV park but enjoyed all the resort facilities.┬áThe amazing thing was the “beach” and a pool with an island bar. It appeared to be a popular spot for stopping between Nevada and California. We tried our hand at gambling (again!), watched a movie, hit some golf balls in the driving range, enjoyed the pool in crouching heat and cooked for ourselves.

Reno, Nevada, USA

California

From Reno, we drove to the west part of Napa Valley as our final destination before San Fransisco. Our campsite was in the bone dry area near Lake Berryessa. The campsite was primitive unlike the previous two location but we had a good time by the lake. As the sun set on Lake Berryessa, we realised our holiday, road trip, crazy and alone romantic times were at an end.

Lake Berryessa, California, USA

Just before we returned the Beast off, we decided to do a laundry stop to pack our bags and chuck unwanted items. Driving through the CBD and Mission District was a painful. Firstly, of course the traffic and secondly, the San Fran marathon was on so roads were closed! Anyway, after going around in circles, we finally said goodbye to our home of 45 days. But first, we had to settle the bill with Escape Campervan. We knew we were way over the mileage limit, but when we mentioned that we experienced the flat tyre, they decided to one third the mileage cost. We were amazed and shocked at the same time. WoW, we get to save some more money. Thanks Escape!

A uber to Oakland later, we were in a Holiday Inn for one night, booked by Suyash. The best thing here was meeting my chidhood friend, Harpreet a.k.a. Winky, whom I had not met in 16 years. It was a great night with him and his wife, talking about our life and times in Faridabad, 16 years ago. Good to see you bro!

Meet up with friend, California, USA

Journey home

We arrived at the airport, way earlier than we needed to. A few hours later, we were ready to leave. The AirNZ flight went through Auckland and was one of the longest flight since Gujarat to New York. We enjoyed it though, as were were going home. We even managed to surprise Mum on a cold Sydney day by arriving a day earlier. She couldn’t believe her eyes for at least an hour or so. Well done to us!