Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner

R and I continued our never-ending sight seeing tour of Europe this weekend when we hit Berlin, Germany. It is a easy 4.5 hour train ride from Prague - so we headed out on Friday afternoon and took the early train back on Monday morning.

Going in, I didn't really know what to expect of Berlin. I knew the basic history of the city and also knew that 80% of the city was pretty much destroyed during World War II. So - unlike our recent trips to Rome, Istanbul, Florence, etc. - Berlin didn't have a single landmark that I immediately identified with the city. I don't count the Berlin Wall since that is pretty much gone and was never much to look at.

Fortunately, it didn't take long for the city to form an identity. When our train pulled in late on Friday night, we walked out into the absolutely nicest and most modern train station that I have ever seen. It was nicer and cleaner than most shopping malls. And when we stepped out of the train station, it was more of the same. Brand new buildings were all over the place. It is certainly the most modern looking city I have seen in Europe.

I guess there are some good things to having your city destroyed in war followed by four decades of communist rule. When you finally emerge and embrace capitalism, you have a clean state to start building. And build they did. (Maybe Detroit should consider going to war with Russia. I'm just saying...)

On Saturday morning we thought it would be a good idea to take a walking tour of Berlin. Since the city is so spread out and doesn't have a main downtown, this was a good opportunity to see the highlights. Our guide was fantastic. We saw all of the main historic sites (Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the location of Hitler's bunker, etc) while also visiting some of the different neighborhoods. Our guide was a great story teller. With each major attraction, he would tell us an interesting story to go with it. He even spent 20 minutes describing how some ingenious elevator repair man managed to get his entire family over the Berlin Wall.

As a bonus, R and I got to take the walking tour for free. The tour company was putting together some new brochures for a marketing campaign and they needed some "models" to take pictures of. So, R, myself and two other girls spent about 15 minutes taking pictures with the guide. It was hard work because it was much more than just smiling for the camera. The guide would point in some direction and we would have to stare with an interested look on our faces. Very challenging. Fortunately, we were compensated for our efforts as the guide waived our ticket price.

One of the most interesting things we saw on the trip was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It's just this big cement field that has all of these rectangular shaped concrete blocks. Absolutely huge - probably covers a full acre. (Actually, I honestly have no idea how big an acre is, so I can be way off on that estimate. Let me officially change my comparison to 1.5 New York City blocks. That's a unit of measure I'm much more comfortable with).

Anyway, when you the first get to the memorial, it doesn't look too intimidating. You just see a field of blocks each about 1 meter high. But, as you start walking through the maze, the ground below you is all uneven, the blocks get taller and taller and you are suddenly lost next to walls 4 meters high. It's meant to symbolize communism; at first it didn't seem all that bad but the deeper you got the crazier things were around you until there was no way out. Oddly enough, this is the exact same design that was used for the "Memorial to the Married Man" (I kid, I kid)

In all seriousness, this memorial does say a lot about the German people. I always wondered how Germans from my generation feel about WWII. What do they learn as children and what do their history books say? From my limited experience it seems like people generally recognize that Hitler was a first class kook and are a bit "ashamed" by is part of their history.

But, I didn't know that going in. In fact, I am currently reading a book on the D-Day battle (in anticipation of a trip I am taking next month). The title of the book says "D-Day" in big letters on the cover. I was actually very conscious about bringing this book with me into Germany. I considered it "rude" for lack of a better word. I know I wouldn't want to see some foreigner on the 6 train reading a book titled "How we blew up the Towers". So, my solution to this problem was that I put an old-fashioned paper book cover on top of my paperback book. It felt like I was in grade school all over again. Or, last month, when I wanted to read a playboy on a airplane. Who says the tricks you learned in 5th grade wouldn't come in handy in adult life. In retrospect, I probably didn't need the book cover (talking about the D-Day book, not the Playboy)

Other than taking tours and visting the musuems/memorials, we did what Germans do best: drink fantastic German beer! The weather was perfect both days so whenever we would see a nice cafe we would park ourselves down and grab a beer. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Chalk this one up as another successful trip. Germany is fast becoming one of my favorite countries. I had never been in Germany up until last year but have now made 5 separate trips within the past 14 months. The food is great, the cities are modern, the people are nice (and beautiful) and the beer is world class. If I had to pick another European city to live in one day, I think Munich and Berlin would be near the very top of the list!

This final picture doesn't show much of the city of Berlin, but it was taken in mirrors within the old German Parliament building.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

R, B and I made a short, 24 hour jaunt to Karlovy Vary on Sunday. Karlovy Vary is located about 2 hours north west of Prague in the Czech Republic.

Around these parts, the city is known for two things: (1) its spas and (2) the number of Russians that live there.

The spas started popping up like mad in Karlovy Vary many centuries ago due to the hot springs that are abundant around the city. They even have a large Thermal Spring encased in a glass building that shoots up about 12 meters high. You can grab a cup and drink from one of th five fountains that are next to the thermal spring. The water in these fountains varies between 32 degrees Celsius (90 F) and 72 C (161 F). It is supposed to be good for you and had therapeutic powers. If you want to experience the same taste at home, boil a cup of water, let it sit for 3 minutes, then throw in a nine bolt battery and drink up. Enjoy!

Since Karlovy Vary is one of the most famous spa towns in Europe, we had to partake. Regular readers of this blog may start questioning my manhood. After all, I just wrote about my experience at a Turkish bath and now am writing about spa treatments. On one hand, I agree with you. No self respecting man should go to the spa twice in one month. But, I have a rule that if I go to a pizza joint - I order a pizza, if I go to a steak house - I order a steak and when I am in a spa town - I go to the spa. It's that simple. Good thing we don't have any vacations planned to the Polygamous ranch in Texas.

Anyway, back to the spa. Anyone who has ever been to a spa knows it is all about customer service. From the minute you walk in the door everyone is supposed to make sure your experience is as pleasurable as possible. Now, anyone who has been to the Czech Republic also knows that customer service is certainly not their specialty. So I find it ironic that God decided to put all of these amazing hot springs right in the middle of the Czech Republic.

That being said, the spa experience was what you might expect. It was certainly nice and the customer service wasn't horrible, but it could have been a lot better. For example, when it was time for our massage, they would shout out "NEXT!" at the top of their lungs and expect us to come running. Another example is the music, which was all being run through the computer at the reception desk. It worked fine, except when the worker got bored and started playing Minesweeper on the PC. We could hear some of the games sound effects on the big speaker instead of the relaxing spa music.

Aside from the spa, we spent most of the day walking around the town. They have a nice little mountain that overlooks the town, so we went on a nice hike up there. Bauer certainly enjoyed it. The town itself is extremely picturesque. They even filmed the casino scenes from the most recent James Bond movie, Casino Royale, there. I think it was portrayed as Monte Carlo in the movie, but there is no denying that it was Karlovy Vary.

I decided to give the casino a try myself. I figure if it is good enough for James Bond, it is good enough for me. When I walked in the casino, it couldn't have been less enticing. It didn't look a Hollywood movie to say the least. There was no music in the background, about 7 dealers were standing around smoking and one Russian dude playing roulette. They also made you pay for your own drinks - but in exchange you got inhale an unlimited amount of second hand smoke. I stayed in the casino for about 30 seconds and walked out without playing a hand.

All-in-all, we had a nice day in Karlovy Vary. It's not the type of place that many Americans get a chance to visit, because it is "off the beaten path". But, I'm glad we went. You'll be challenged to find a town with a prettier overriding architecture. Unfortunately, the weather was rather dreary, so our pics did not come out that great.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Is it spring time where you live?

It's cold and dreary in Prague these days. We're a week into April and spring is no where in site. On my walk home from work today, it was cold, wet and the sun was hidden by a dark cloak of clouds

This is a stark contrast to last year when March and April were two of the most beautiful months I have ever experienced. I even wrote a blog post about it.

I can count the truly nice days we've had this year on one hand. Hopefully spring comes soon.

P.S. On a totally unrelated note, the Travel Channel is on in the background while I type this note. The guy is doing a country report on Turkey and, wouldn't you know it, the guy gets a Turkish bath at the exact same place went to. This makes sense since we deliberately went to the most famous bath house. What's really cool is that the Turkish guy that gave Mr. Travel Channel a rub down is the exact same guy that scrubbed me. You could now argue that he is the most famous person I have ever shared an intimate moment with.