Grenoble

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We really enjoyed visiting Grenoble. It’s a great mix of industrial, college, tourist, and residential. There’s a bustling downtown shopping area, a massive visitors’ center with maps and advice for hiking and skiing. It’s close to a trio of mountains and has a fairly extensive public transit system, but is also small enough that crossing the city is a half hour affair on foot.

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Its streets hold tiny cafes, repair shops, board game stores, and lots and lots of street art. Almost every area had at least something on the walls, usually fairly pointed at politics or the human condition, but often just plain colorful and weird.

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The city itself is clean with wide streets and beautiful walks.  Much of it is entirely pedestrian, night or day.

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There’s also a delicious array of food. We’re not sure if it’s particularly varied for a town this size because of the college scene, or if this is normal in France, but we were able to find cheap, delicious food at all hours. A Turkish kebab and pita shop filled us right up one night, when the fancy but apparently affordable french cuisine restaurant was booked full. Since there are so many people out and about, the smaller places tend to fill up. France continues the Italian custom of eating and talking for hours.

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Another great place we went to was a pasta shop on the main drag. A definite french twist on the Italian staple, we tried a variety of their sauces – the bolete and almond was our favorite!

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Just around the corner from our hotel was a lovely pastry shop. Not only were the desserts and drinks amazing, the staff was also super friendly. When it became clear we spoke barely a word of French they were happy to chat in English, and even let us practice our pronunciation! French coffee is not as good as the Italian, but they more than make up for it with their tea and pastries.

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The people around town were genial. This gentleman waved me down to come help him carry his cart down from the truck. Smiles and waves later, I figured out he was a knife sharpener. We could have really used that, but by the time I ran back with out little kitchen knife, he was gone into town.

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We’re not sure if most French cities are as nice as Grenoble, but we really want to go back. It was just the right size to explore, and full of friendly people. There were lots of trails around town, and the food was always good and often affordable. We couldn’t find a hostel, but the hotels we saw were neat and not overly priced. It was a great first stop in our journey through France.

Less than 24 hours in Milan

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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We have arrived later than we hoped in Milan thanks to the Phantom Train fiasco, with our train on to France departing in ~20 hours. Which is a shame, because it turns out Milan is gorgeous and everything I wanted in a city: walkable and beautiful.

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The plaza of the Duomo Cathedral
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The Disco di Arnaldo Pomodoro
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The grand Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
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Evening commute at dusk
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Milan bokeh!

Milan also has a Chinatown! With some actually good Chinese food!

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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
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Ravioleria Sarpi in Milan’s Chinatown.
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Bubble Tea in Milan

It really is too bad the new EMA HQ didn’t end up here.

Verona

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Like many other Italian cities, Verona’s architecture is fantastic. The historic center sits in the middle of a peninsula, where ancient cathedrals, churches, and even a Roman coliseum sit side by side with old residences converted to shops, restaurants, and markets. It’s also a very popular tourist spot – close to Austria and Switzerland, it gets a large number of visitors from both countries and the rest of Europe, especially young school and college groups. In the most popular spots it can feel a bit crowded, but for the most part it’s

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The famed sight in this city is supposed to be Juliet’s Balcony. It might have some literary interest, but overall it wasn’t worth the stop. It can be very crowded, the building is not particularly interesting.

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On one of the walls, people leave tokens of affection. Bandaids seem to be the thing to put up. There’s a little shop that sells pink themed everything, and while we were there a couple went through a proposal up on the balcony as the crowd watched.

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The house of Romeo is also in Verona, and is much, much less popular.

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Nearby Romeo’s house is a real gem of architecture and sculpture – the Scaliger Tombs. Once a ruling family, now a mausoleum. The style is gothic and stands out with its pinnacles and spikes among the straight lines of the rest of the city.

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The arena in the south of the city is still used for holding events. On the rainy day we visited, it was closed except for a fairly pricy tour. For me the real beauty is from the outside, how the arches have held up over the centuries.

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We also got a peek into the repairs going on inside!

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All around the peninsula are bridges connecting it to the mainland. We crossed on the north east side, only to find a traveling piano player playing from the middle of the bridge.

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The restaurants and houses crowd the water’s edge on the old-city side of the bridge.

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Across the other side there’s more room to expand. A wide street runs along the river, bordering the many churches.

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The bridge itself is of lovely old Roman construction – unfortunately not original. The Ponte Pietra was destroyed during WWII and later rebuilt.

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We tried climbing up into the hills, but wound up lost in a series of small alleys.

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We crossed back across to the old town, passing one of the many churches in the city. This one is Cathedral Duomo, one of the largest in the city.

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Our last stop was the castle on the southern edge of the old town. The Castelvecchio is part castle, part bridge, and all medieval. The name means, literally, old castle, and it was built by the same family that’s entombed in the gothic tombs – the Scaligers.

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There’s no shortage of beautiful buildings in Verona. It’s easy to imagine it was an inspiration to painters of old, and it remains a great subject for sketching today. A day is well spent walking around and marveling at the construction. There’s even more to see, inside the various museums and churches in the city. Done with the city, we headed home by train. Between the frequent local buses and the rapid trains, Italy’s transportation system served us amazingly well once again.

Venice, Scenes of Everyday Life

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It’s easy to imagine Venice as some sort of Renaissance wonderland. From many of the pictures people take and the art done of the city, it’s very easy to miss that this is as much a vibrant commercial and residential city as it is a a beautiful historic site. In paintings hanging in the museum, the merchants, sailors, craftsmen, and tradesman filling the canvas are, to our modern eyes, part of the decor of the time. They were in fact vital to the growth of the city, just as they are vital to its life today.

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The canals are the life blood of the city. Everything comes in by boat, and travels to the correct destination via increasingly small canals. During the day it’s mostly moving people and tourists around, but in the morning it’s moving everything else.

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Until about noon, you can find these market boats pulled up along the canal, usually near clusters of restaurants or grocery stores. They stock the local vendors and it looked like they were doing brisk business. Cramped quarters leads to minimal storage space, so everyone gets a daily shipment of most food goods.

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There are some dry markets that sell to normal customers who walk through the stall lined aisles. These markets are, unsurprisingly, also supplied by boat.

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One of the semi-enclosed areas near the water is reserved for an incredibly pungent fish market. The stone tiles around there are treacherous.

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In addition to keeping everyone supplied with food and other wares, someone has to maintain the city itself. A lot of buildings rely on piers and supports that are jammed in the water. Building new ones or replacing old ones is a pretty delicate affair that the tradesman handle with ease. I know I’d fall into the water if I tried walking the planks the way they do.

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The effort it takes to keep such a city in good repair is incredible. We were utterly fascinated by the way boats were customized for their particular jobs. Just like construction crews on land, these long, wide, and flat boats carried cranes. Unlike land based cranes, these swing low and are relatively light weight, and the crane boats carry their own building supplies with them.

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For moving boxed cargo, there are very similar flat boats that run around dropping off boxes, which are shuttled to their destination by a runner with a dolly. The early morning bustle is full of people taking things to and fro, getting ready for the day.

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It’s not just on land – the early morning fog falls on a seemingly endless stream of boats zipping up and down the canals.

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One of the major things that (probably) no one thinks about when they think of Venice is hauling out the trash. We sure didn’t, so when we saw these garbage boats roaming around in the morning hours, we were amazed. They’re a lot like the crane boats, but their cranes have only one job – to lift and empty the garbage carts.

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The carts are slim and on wheels. Workers run them along alleys and across plazas to the various businesses and residences, collecting trash. When the cart is full, they run back and drop it off at the boat, which lifts the cart and through a door in the bottom, empties it. In part because they don’t have a lot of time to cover the island, and because their carrying capacity is relatively small, garbage day is every day. Like the fresh food, the fresh garbage needs to be carted regularly – there’s no place for storage like there is on the mainland.

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It’s not just on the water that the city gets repaired. These workers are installing phone and internet cables – it’s very cool to see Venice wiring up for the future.

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The City of Sarajevo

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On the surface, Sarajevo should be like most other Eastern European cities – a mix of Turkish and Russian influence, torn up sidewalks, and crumbling facades. And it certainly does have some (or more) of all of those. Throw in the historical perception of a recent war, and you have a city that shouldn’t be great to visit. Yet it doesn’t feel like a Eastern European city – it feels different, somehow more modern. And as for the war, it’s not forgotten by any means and signs of it are everywhere, but the people are in the middle of moving on and building new lives and a new city. Sarajevo’s history is complicated and violent, and I’m not qualified to say how it got to where it is now, but as a visitor, I can with certainty say I would love to come back.

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Our first impression of Sarajevo was that the people here are very warm and welcoming.  We felt immediately at home and despite hosteling near the old city, did not feel any sense of being in a tourist trap. Our second impression was of the food. It’s delicious, it’s everywhere, and – at least as a tourist on a budget – it’s not very expensive. The historic section of the city is where we ate most of our meals, so everything was fairly traditional. Bosnian food has a huge helping of Turkish influence, lots of Mediterranean spices in their meat, and an appreciation for delicious dough. My favorite was sac – pronounced sach.

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It’s basically banitsa, or buyrek, or any other thin dough wrapped around a delicious filling then baked. But the ones we had – several times – were cooked so that despite being baked, the inner layers came out as though steamed. Absolutely delicious and oddly very reminiscent of the Siberian boozi.

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We also enjoyed a more traditional cafeteria-like restaurant in the old town, this one frequented by pensioners. Our meal there was varied but these dough-dumplings with meat were fantastic.

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There are also several bakeries in the marketplace. All the desserts seem like variations on Turkish traditional recipes, but we unfortunately didn’t try each different one to know. This is the syrup-soaked semolina cookie that I’ve been lucky enough to try in three different countries so far – the bakeries in Sarajevo are some of the best! After the food comes the city’s architecture. Despite being under siege for almost four years and suffering untold structural damage, many of the historical sites came away relatively unscathed.

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In the market place, the center of the old town, centuries old buildings and monuments still stand.

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Walk out towards the river for a view like this one. Lovely old houses, minarets, and the surrounding hills. The river itself is bridged in many places, and each one makes for a great view.

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There is of course more modern work as well.

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Sarajevo also has a whimsical side.

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Even away from the river and the old town, the architecture is interesting.

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This mall in the downtown gives no sign that it’s anything less than a fully modern shopping experience.

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Renovation is always underway.

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And there were lots of examples of really great murals all around the city.

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There’s even room for greenery!

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Like this lovely tree growing out of a wall.

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There’s no way to escape the reality that a war took place here, not long ago. Sarajevo was under siege from the hills – bullets riddled the buildings and mortars fired into the heart of the city. It is a difficult emotion to describe – awe, respect, maybe? Like being confronted something extremely distant and surreal made concrete. These scars are signs of what the people here endured.

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It is very eery to see those familiar soviet-style blocks with gunshots, instead of poor maintenance, damaging the facade.

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Alongside the bullet specked buildings are the mortar holes. Some time after the war, a citizen artist filled in some of them with red asphalt – these are the roses of Sarajevo. Only scars from mortars that killed one or more people. There are plenty of mortar holes in the city that aren’t filled in as well – after a little while walking around you can sort of tell what’s from a mortar versus what’s from regular disrepair.

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Some of the particularly notable roses, or ones near other famous landmarks, have been roped off to protect them. There were once a great many more around the city, but time and reconstruction has removed all but a few.

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The ones that are not ‘sanctioned’ tend to wear away after a while.

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To get a better understanding of what life was like during the war, there is a museum in the city with an entire room dedicated to preserving and showing artifacts, posters, and in this case, an entire apartment. It’s a sad and sobering place to visit – I highly recommend it, but maybe have a less heavy activity planned for the rest of the day.

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The city and its people seem to be moving on. The war is clearly not forgotten, but it is also not holding anyone back from creating a new life and bringing Sarajevo into modernity and prosperity.

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Skopje

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We’ve continued our travels on to Skopje in FYROM, or Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia. Over the ire of the Greeks, though, everyone here just calls the country Macedonia. With wide boulevards, gleaming new buildings, and plethora of monuments in the city’s center, you get the feeling that this is a government looking to definite itself as modernized and powerful.

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Leave the city center to find yourself surrounded by densely-built neighborhoods, with neatly-constructed houses beside ramshackle dwellings and the occasionally-forgotten Soviet structure.

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Head to the “old town” to see the influence of Ottoman rule on this Balkan state. Narrow pedestrian paths weave between wooden stalls selling souvenirs and shops brimming with beaten copper, filigree jewelry, and ‘handmade’ goods that may or may not be made in Macedonia. Have a seat at a café and order a Turkish tea or coffee and desserts like baklava or sekerpare, then sit back and watch the people pass: tourists, locals, and the café workers who rush between, carrying tea and coffee on platters to shopkeepers so they need not leave and neglect their wares.

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For a good conversation in the old town find Vladimir, who runs one of the antique shops, and ask his opinions on global politics and the future of Macedonia. Sit with him as the tea drains from the glass and the cigarettes turn to ash. Ask him why he thinks the Greeks take such an issue with Macedonia and he traces it back to the Greek Civil War, a conflict that occurred 1946-1949. “We lived in Macedonia of Northern Greece before then, happily, but they drove us out during the war, taking our land and everything we owned. We are Macedonians, but Greece would never admit it because it opens the door to potential reparations.” If that is true, the Macedonians have a right to their name.

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European Capital Hop: Prague is magic

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Prague in the late afternoon, as seen from the Petřín Lookout Tower

Before I visited Europe, I remember hearing from friends and family about the magical beauty of European cities. “They’re gorgeous!” people swooned, “The cobblestone streets and rows of old buildings are photo-tastic. It’s magical!” So far, we haven’t really gotten that. Sure, the old town of whatever city we happen to be in is nice, but it hasn’t been anything to write home about.

But Prague stands out because it does feel magical. Part of it is the architecture: rows of pastel-colored buildings, each covered with neat cinnabar-colored tiles; the narrow cobblestone streets and alleys; the lights of the city shimmering on the Vltava River at night. It really is gorgeous, and Prague’s title as the “Heart of Europe” is well-earned.

Part of the magic is also in the pricing. We’re coming from the sticker shock of Vienna, but that aside vacationing here is downright affordable, thanks in no small part to the fact that the Czech Republic, like Hungary, is still recovering economically from the collapse of the Soviet Union. We found two beds in a hostel in Malá Strana for $24 a night. We ate lunch and dinner and dessert out for $36 a day for two people, less than $10 per person per meal. And while we weren’t eating at the fanciest restaurants, we got REALLY good food. This bar right around the corner from our hostel called U Magistra Kelly was our regular go-to, with hearty entrée portions, sweet fizzy lemonade, fresh beer, and a killer baked brie.

In short, Prague is the magic city of Europe everyone has been telling you about. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

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The waterfront along the Vltava.
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The Prague Astronomical Clock, representing the movements of the sun and moon while keeping time.
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An ivy-covered storage courtyard.
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A statue over one of the doors.
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Giant mushrooms sprout from astroturf in this man-made display.
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Wedding photoshoots are common. The couple pose alongside a fence covered in ‘love locks’.
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An ornate lock on a door in the city.
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A bronze relief on the Charles Bridge, effaced by thousands of hands over time.
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Workers repainting a buildling.
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A katydid, lost in the city.
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That baked brie I mentioned earlier, from U Magistra Kelly.
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Streetcars and pedestrians share the narrow streets.
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Street art in the northern part of the city.
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St Vitus Cathedral (I think), bathed in golden floodlight at dusk.
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Pedestrians on the Charles Bridge at dusk.
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The lights of Pragues bridges reflecting on the Vltava.
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Bear-shaped cookies posed in a window at the local bakery.
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Men weld trolley tracks in the north part of Prague.
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Picnickers gather apples in the same park that hosts the Petřín Lookout Tower. The orchard is free to pick from, with a limit on how much you can take home.

 

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More views of Prague from the tower.

 

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Sunset from the tower.

 

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A shot of the moon from the tower.
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Prague at night.

 

European Capital Hop: Vienna

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What I would guess is the belltower, St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Next up, we catch a train from Budapest to Vienna, our first foray into Western Europe and a bit of a sticker shock. Food, places to sleep, and things to do cost almost twice that of neighboring Hungary and there really aren’t many cheap options. Still, it’s part of travel, and we adapt to the circumstances: we adjust our budget to $80 USD daily for food and board for the two of us.

And the food…well, the desserts are absolutely lovely. The rest seems to be mostly fried meat/cheese/sausage and it’s not great, although with our limited funds we’re obviously not eating the highest-quality stuff. When we’re tired of fried things, the only other affordable thing is Doner, now ubiquitous as the cheap-and-fast choice in nearly all of Europe.

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The escalators down to the platforms at one of the train stations.
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A street in Vienna.
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Ah, Leibniz: co-inventor of calculus and the butt of Voltaire’s jokes.
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Equality pedestrian walk signs. Don’t worry, they had female/female and female/male ones too.
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Owl figures on the side of the Secession.
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An ancient tree near the cathedral, said to give good luck if you drove a nail into it. This worked out badly for the tree, which died a while ago and is kept in this glass tube.
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Mural on a building in the tourist area.
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A poster that translates roughly to “Don’t talk to the police.”
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Hanging gardens in an apartment courtyard.
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Mushroom foraging and idenfication books.
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An interesting building outside of the tourism zone.
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Vienna’s famous cow-and-wolf playing backgammon mural from the early 1500’s.

 

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No need for Google Translate–I think I got this one.

 

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral
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Tourists pause outside of a museum.
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Some architecture near the Museums Quartier (I think).
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Mmm, lunch: SPAR pasta and Mozartkugeln.

Warsaw

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We’re in Warsaw after an uncomfortable overnight bus ride in which I had food poisoning, but that’s ok because Poland has amazing food for cheaper than your average European country. Pierogi and golonka, here I come.

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Veal Pierogi with fresh pickled slaws.
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Golonka (pork knuckle) with sauce and mashed potatoes.

As we wander the streets of Warsaw, though, I can’t help but ask myself “Where are all the people?” Except for a handful of tourists and the occasional homeless person, the parks we find are empty. The trolleys ferry only one or two souls at a time.

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An empty bridge over the highway.
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Graffiti laced statue base. It probably once held a Soviet monument.
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Trolley rails embedded in the grass of a park.

The only crowds we see are at the local farmer’s market (which is a bit livelier, but not until about midday) and in Warsaw’s “Old Town”, reconstructed after bombing in the Second World War leveled 80% of the city. Even here, the crowds of tourists aren’t dense and on a rainy day, everyone disappears.

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People line up for fresh Chineve/Vietnamese food at the farmer’s market.
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Tourists stop to listen to violinists play in the Old Town.
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The Old Town on a rainy day.
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Men waiting out the rain in the Old Town.

The dearth of people, especially young people, isn’t surprising in Warsaw. First, we’re not wandering the financial/downtown district, where everyone actually works. Second, a lot of younger working-age Poles have left for Western Europe. Since Poland joined the EU, over 2 million Poles have emigrated, many of them young people looking for better-paying jobs.

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A young woman checks her phone while waiting outside her store.
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“The Little Insurrectionist”, a statue in the Old Town that commemorates the child soldiers who died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

But not everyone has left. One evening, we go out for a walk along the Vistula River and find ourselves part of a steady trickle of people in that direction. They’re all young and dressed up, and many are carrying bottles of wine or packs of beer. The trickle becomes a stream of people, and when we reach the riverbank there are dense crowds of people milling around, drinking, laughing, and socializing. Food trucks and ice cream carts line the sidewalk. We ask a couple of English-speaking Poles what’s going on; “Is this a special event?” we ask. “No,” one of them replies, “This happens almost every night in the summer.” So this is where the people are.

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Warsaw nightlife on the riverbank.
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Crowds of people, sitting and standing and drinking on the riverbank.