Ex-Bloc Party

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

Have you traveled in Eastern Europe? What did you know about the region before visiting? If you haven’t been to Eastern Europe, what country or city appeals to you most as a place to visit? Or, more generally speaking, how much does knowing about the history of a place inspire your future travels?

first off, what is eastern europe? as a(n american) child of the ’80s, eastern europe meant a combination of poverty, communism, oppressive regimes, this iron curtain thing (which i remember thinking everyone was confused about because the berlin wall was made of concrete LOL), and goose step marches to slow, plaintive music. of course, this is the gross caricature of a pre-teen, and ha, most certainly has not been borne out in my travels to the region.

Besides (East) Germany, I've been to Estonia, the Czech Republic (twice), Hungary, and Slovenia (and passed through Croatia on a train).

in any case, given the very disparate definitions of eastern europe, i’m going to go with my perhaps-distorted notion of what eastern europe is: those countries that used to be in the eastern bloc. of those, the czech republic holds a very special place in my heart because it was the destination of my first solo trip (2005). i really didn’t know much about the area other than vague recollections of CNN broadcasts from over a decade prior, but i do remember hearing that it used to be a cool place for backpackers that had since changed from what it was in those years immediately after its bloc exit. in other words, i was late to the game. ok, fine, it may not have been the cheap backpacker haven of yesteryear, but that didn’t diminish my experience in the least, and that held true for the other former eastern bloc countries i’ve been to as well.

also, it goes without saying that these countries are just as much a part of europe (and deserve a visit) as their siblings to the west. it was pretty cool being in slovenia the year prior to its conversion to the euro (prices were marked in both tolars and euros), thinking that there was still change in the air. (speaking of change in the air, perhaps consider playing this song as the background music to this post.)

back to the question at hand: given what i knew, or thought i knew, and with the understanding that much had changed since the dissolution of the bloc, i really had no idea what to expect.

what i found was a mix of “old europe”, relics from their communist past, and modern and thriving places that are by no means second or third tier.

what i hoped to see (bloc-y)

i have an odd fascination with life under a communist regime. not that i would ever want to live in one (nor wish it on anybody, especially after going to the house of terror museum in budapest), but there is this whole “evil yet unknown” quality about it. i just knew growing up it was a bad thing, and as an adult, i want to understand it more (maybe it’s like watching a train wreck? morbid fascination/can’t look away?). plus, i’m in love with the socialist realism style of art.

Cosmonaut statue, outside Haje station (was Kosmonautů), Prague

Odd communist monument, Tallinn

Paneláky, Jižní Město (I think), outskirts of Prague

what i knew would be there (splendor from a great past)

Interior of Széchenyi Medicinal Bath, Budapest

Ljubljana

Looking across the Danube and the Chain Bridge towards Buda, Budapest

what i was pleased to discover (ongoing vibrance)

Griffin Ice Sculpture, Tallinn

Lennon Wall, Prague (though started during communist days, it constantly evolves)

Street art, Prague

i’m not done with eastern europe yet! if my september trip to georgia goes as planned, i will have a day to spend in warsaw during a layover. also, i went to graduate school with students from bulgaria, romania, and serbia and would love to visit the places they called home as well.

two random facts:

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Following the Tracks

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

What is it about train travel that captivates the imagination of travelers in every corner of the world? What about it makes the word “romantic” so apt? Do you have a rail experience that perfectly captures why we love trains so much? Or are you one of the people who actually avoids trains whenever possible?

yes. oh yes. as much as i love flying (#avgeek, y’all), if i could travel exclusively by train instead, i think i would. i. love. traveling. by. rail.

i’m not sure why that is. is it the technology (tilting, high speed, maglev…)? the way the countryside rolls — or whizzes — by as you stare mesmerized out the window? how even as toddlers we’re made familiar with them, taught that trains go choo-choo and i think i can i think i can?

my first big train journey was in 1999. i had just graduated from college and started working, and finally had the resources (time and money) to rail long distances instead of fly. that one-way trip from chicago, il (where i lived) to roseville, ca (where my parents live), cemented the romanticism of rail travel for me. i had my own compartment on the california zephyr where i watched the midwest, great plains, and rockies roll on by. i was glued to that window and in 48 hours i had seen more than i ever would have seen had i just taken the 4.5 hour flight. being born and raised in los angeles, i did things i never thought i would: i waved at strangers and they waved back. i saw the big black night sky, pinpricked by stars and a bright moon, covering like a blanket a vast expanse of prairie stretching as far the eye could see. i watched breathless as the train glided through the snowy rockies. i ate dinner at the same table as complete strangers! (i was pretty shy back then.) even though it was well over a decade ago, these are parts i still recall so vividly because it made such a big impression on me. sure, in my head i romanticized it (i still do), but that’s the magic of trains.

OK, don't laugh, but I blogged about it back then, which, thanks to the folks at archive.org, we can still read today (unfortunately I think I've lost all the pictures).

since then, my love for traveling by rail has only grown, especially when it comes to high speed train travel. here are some of my more memorable journeys:

  • 2002: up the west coast of india from thrissur to mumbai. this was amazing. you could hang out the open door, waving at people along the tracks, watching fishermen fish, seeing farmers tend their fields. the second part of this short video shows some highlights of that ride. it was by no means high speed, and i’m grateful it wasn’t.
  • 2003: my first high speed train ride, on a german ICE 3 from cologne to frankfurt. i remember staring at the monitor at the end of the car we were in, practically fainting when we hit the vaunted 300 km/h — it was as if i broke the sound barrier!

After I moved to Germany and traveling by ICE became the norm, it still never lost its appeal, even the ICE 1.

  • 2006: took trenitalia’s new high speed rail service from milan to turin for the winter olympics. literally brand new (the rail line had just opened less than two weeks before), i remember a loud cheer went up after the conductor announced we had reached trecento chilometri all’ora. i couldn’t help but smile and join in their pride and excitement.
  • 2006: bernina and glacier express trains. slow as all get out, but the scenery was breathtaking, especially going down into italy on the bernina.

  • 2011: bucket list item! i took the shinkansen from odawara to kyoto and it was everything i’d hoped for. like a true railfan, i purposely booked a connection so i could try both the hikari and nozomi services. for so long it was the pinnacle of rail technology and finally i was able to experience it firsthand. (in the video below, my poor iphone camera couldn’t even keep up with the speed of the train, hence its slanted appearance.)

I even had an ekiben to complete the experience!

Far From the Madding Crowd in Europe

part of the BootsnAll Indie Travel Challenge Project

What have you done in your own visits to Europe to make it more budget-friendly or to get away from the crowds? If you were going to spend several weeks – or several months – in Europe, where would you go (and why)?

note: i wrote a more general entry about how i save money while traveling for the #indie30 project last year.

on the majority of my trips to europe, i’ve spent very little money either out of circumstance or necessity. they were either a) with my family (=i barely had to pay for anything, thanks mom), or b) as a fixed-/limited-income grad student in germany. while the former is perhaps the best way to go if you can stand your family, having limited means but the urge to travel really gave me insight on how to do it on the cheap (err, cheaper). that isn’t to say i haven’t splurged on trips from the states to europe basically just to see concerts (see that entry above), but i’d rather get a deal than spend a deal!

here are some things i’ve picked up:

  • hotels: don’t be afraid to stay outside of the city center/old town. depending on your travel style, you may enjoy this more since you get to experience something a bit more “real life”, and prices will undoubtedly be cheaper when comparing similar types of lodging. especially in large cities, the public transportation system is usually pretty good, so you will have no problem getting around. definitely do the research, though, to double check that the hotels you’re considering are indeed served by public transportation (check frequencies, especially at night) and that that’s an inconvenience you’re willing to deal with.

The view from a €55/night hotel in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. Not the most splendid, but it was clean, functional, and convenient to public transportation.

  • flights: there’s no way i could have traveled so much as i did when i was a student were it not for low-cost airlines (specifically Germanwings and TUIfly). beware: some of them fly to airports that aren’t the main ones/close to town, so you may be in for a relatively long bus or train ride once you arrive. you can find more information on discount european airlines and how to find flights on them on wikitravel.
  • trains: while most people think about getting a rail pass when going the train route, it may not be the cheapest option. many train operators offer discounts if you book early and can commit to taking a particular train: in the case of german rail (deutsche bahn, the sparpreis ticket), up to 50% off round trips. another example from germany (since that’s what i’m most familiar with): deals for regional weekend travel (schönes-wochenende) that will save a ton if you’re traveling in a group.
  • where: don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path. smaller cities usually mean cheaper and fewer crowds — there’s more to europe than london and paris and rome!

Fish drying in Nazaré, Portugal. The town was dead in the off-season (a good thing!).

  • when: as always, off or shoulder season is my preferred time to go. the weather may be a bit crappier, but the crowds are thinner and prices (for things like hotel) are usually cheaper. this worked best when i was a student since it was pretty easy to sneak away (heh) and there were a ton of random holidays in germany (if you look at this list, we [BW] got it pretty good!).

There may be a chill in the air and the trees may be missing some leaves, but winter or spring travel can be wonderfully tourist-sparse. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, early April.

  • make friends: whether it’s online or in school, the more places you can stay free and have a local host, the better. join twitter, make friends, reconnect with old ones that may have moved overseas.

My first trip to Luxembourg was a day trip from Saarbrücken, where I visited (and stayed with) some friends of mine from grad school.

  • try and time it right: if you can make it during a festival or other event you’re interested in, go for it and kill two birds with one stone (a vacation and an experience). don’t know what’s going on? even better — researching a destination is part of the fun, imho! this is definitely easier said than done, since few of us are so flexible (i know i’m not, especially with my job), but it can be worth it.

Granted getting to Berlin from Tübingen was pretty easy, but there was no way I was going to miss a chance to go to Love Parade (*sigh*, RIP)

  • become a resident: this was, hands down, the best thing i’ve ever done in terms of feeding my travel addiction. being a student in many european countries is pretty cheap (when i did my grad school in germany, it was pretty much free, just pay for room and board and living expenses). once you’re there, the continent is your oyster.

My admission letter to the MA computational linguistics program at the University of Tübingen.

now to quickly answer the second question — where would i go if i had time and money? let me count the ways. ireland (never been), scotland (visit some twitter friends), denmark (never been), norway (never been), romania (love the language, never been), ukraine (never been). there are other countries in europe that i have not been to, but these top the list.