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More on Munich

If you’ve read my other posts on Munich, about Oktoberfest and the Starkbierfest, you might think that beer festivals are all the town has to offer. But that’s not all that’s cool about Munich, as I found out. The Marienplatz is a distinctly different type of European old town square area. Instead of many of them where there is a square formed around the original old church, the Marienplatz is just outside the ornate Gothic city hall. Though churches do flank the area. And in looking for the Cafe Glockenspiel I’d heard about I realized that there are about a half-dozen clock towers in the area. (By the way, the cafe I was looking for was not in any of them but in a modern building.)

I went to the Hacker-Pschorr restaurant near the Marienplatz for a lunch. I had the Bavarian meatloaf (offenfried liebenkäse) and a Radler. A Radler. I didn’t know what it was either, but it’s apparently a half beer half citrus drink. Fairly refreshing, but too sweet for me. The meatloaf looks like, and is basically cooked spam. Not recommended.

And no blog post would be complete without a post about a bar. The Euro Youth Hostel bar is a good one. Though the sign on the door says it’s for guests only, if you’re nice to Burt the bartender, he won’t give you much of a hassle.


Old Friends and Imprisoned Luggage

See more posts in the Mystery Trip saga!

I have not been able to change clothes or post anything for the last two days because my luggage was imprisoned in a Viennese hostel locker. To tell how it got there and why it was stuck I will have to start a bit earlier. It started with an email.

“You will go to the Meininger Hostel tonight at 20.00 where you will be greeted by a friend.” The Philadelphian.

When I arrived at the hostel, I was indeed greeted by an old friend and roommate, named Yu. I haven’t seen him in about 3 years, during which time he’s been in school in Japan. This week he moved to Vienna.

So we caught up and planned out some things to see and do and went to get some dinner and drinks. I locked my luggage in the locker with a nice, strong lock designed to resist a shim.

We got back to the hostel and I realized that somewhere I had lost the key. I searched my pockets but to no avail. The key had vanished like a David Copperfield trick. No real trouble, just cut the lock off and be done with it. It happens a thousand times a year in hostels the world over, I’m sure.

Except there was a problem. The hostel had no way to deal with a well-made lock, they were only equipped to cut off the poorly made ones like those they sold. (Hey, a locked storage space like that is only meant to deter casual theft not a determined attacker.) We could always force the locker open by wrenching the locked piece, but that would break it. And their handyman wouldn’t be in until Monday to figure out a way to get it off without breaking the locker.

Stranded. Without phone. Without clean clothes. Without toiletries. Without laptop.

So finally this morning the handyman arrives, grabs the pliers and wrenches off the lock and I have my bag back.

Squirrel Shield


Back in Poland

I’m back in Poland, one of my favorite countries. It is vastly underrated by tourists (which is a good thing), though they’re wising up and coming more often (which is a bad thing). Every time I’m here I hear more and more English being spoken both by the natives and the travelers (which is both good and bad). It is home to some of the most beautiful women Europe has to offer and some of the friendliest and welcoming people I’ve met.

I arrived in Wroclaw at about 10am and headed to Magda’s house. She’s one of Jack’s cousins. We met and had some tea (herbata) and some snacks, as is the custom. And as is the custom she insisted that I bloat myself on the delights. After that I made plans to head to Krakow (pronounced Krakoov by the Poles) for the weekend since the weather was so nice.

I found the Mundo Hostel online and it looked good. It’s set on a quiet street just off the old town, on the way to the old Jewish section. I called and booked with them, promising to be there by 10pm, as my train was set to arrive at about 9. Well my train was an hour late leaving and couldn’t make up much time on the way (actually it was delayed more) so I called back and let them know since they made me promise I’d show up.

When I got to Krakow it was dark and I strolled around the old town for a bit looking at the sights. It’s a really pretty area. I went and checked into the hostel and asked if they knew any places that would be good to hang out on a Friday night. Anita and Michal (if you stop by tell them I said hello) were friendly and spoke great English and one thing led to another and we all sat down and chatted. I offered some of my Jameson that I’d brought from Dublin and we ended up talking all night, about politics, music, culture and the general state of the world. They also revealed that before I arrived they thought I’d be an old man who didn’t know what a hostel was and who would be upset about not having a TV and a phone and room service. Do I give off that impression?

One other thing we talked about was whether it was better to be blind since birth or to have had the sense at one time. Michal’s argument was that you wouldn’t miss seeing if you were born blind and therefore would be better off. My argument was that you could rely on your memories and, though you may miss seeing, you would be happier having once been able to appreciate the sighted world. I think his point of view boils down to: absence of feeling is better than pain. My position, however, is that pain is better than numbness. This is a basic philosophical argument to which there is no clear answer. Your view, I suppose, is based on your your tolerance for pain and your experience with loss. Can predictions be made from this hypothesis? I doubt it since there are only subjective measures of both. But I think it can give a heuristic premise from which to work.

With the sun threatening to rise we broke up the festivities and I decided I’d head to the Jewish area and get some pictures and maybe some breakfast. I stopped at the market and got some pickles and apples and bread and headed back. I passed out before I ate more than one pickle and one slice of the bread.

The next day was also gorgeous so I hung out in and around the old town, just relaxing and taking in the sights, smells and sounds. Time went by and day became night and I headed back to the Jewish section. There was a little bar called Propoganda that I wanted to go see. It was pretty cool with lots of crazy Communist era stuff on the walls, but there were too many tourists. I went to another place called Singer, named for the sewing equipment and it was cool, too, but with the same drawback. That’s the problem with the tourist towns, they’re overrun with tourists.

Sunday I headed back to Wroclaw to meet Magda, her daughter and Marysia, another of Jack’s cousins. We had Easter dinner together and had a great time. Monday we got up, had lunch and I was off for Warsaw and back to working life.

Cork, Ireland

When I got to Cork from Dublin, it was after 8pm and all of the tourist info places were closed. The map I had was useless for trying to find anything and I didn’t know any hostels anyway. So I sat down on the street and hopped on somebody’s WiFi and spent about 10 minutes looking things up. For the sake of ease, I just went to the first hostel I found. They had beds and so I checked in.

The place was foul, the sheets were stained, the free WiFi tried to attack my laptop (possibly to force me to use their pay computers?) and I had to climb a hill to get there. They didn’t use keys, only electronic locks on the room doors. People pretty much came in and out and nobody checked if they were a guest. Since the dorms slept about 20, the room doors were always open. So in other words, if you’re looking for a free place to stay in Cork, you can probably find it there – but I’ve withheld the name to protect the guilty.

The next night I went to a much better place which I highly recommend. It’s called the Bru Bar & Hostel. Even though the rooms are above a pub, it’s quiet, clean, and safe. The people are cool and the bar is a good place to hang out, as is the common room/kitchen.

Colorful Locals
Since I didn’t really do anything my first night in Ireland, I figured I should at least go out and have a couple of pints my second night. So I meandered around and hit a couple of little bars. It’s easy to find the popular places in Ireland becuase there are always tons of people in the street smoking outside. But when I saw a couple of guys head into a poorly marked pub with nobody outside smoking, I decided to check it out anyway.

I walked in and there was a guy who must have been about 90 playing the piano and everybody was talking and having a great time. It was a tiny place and it was really just like a perfect Irish pub. So I figured I’d get myself a drink. I ordered a beer and turned around to watch the performance. From the corner of my eye I saw the guy next to me giving me the stare down. So I turned and looked down at him (he was only about 5 feet tall) and said hi.

He started talking with me and it was going amicably, then he started asking me how I knew everyone in the room if I was just visiting Ireland. He seemed to think that I knew everyone there, apparently in some secret conspiratorial way. My denying it confirmed his suspicions.

At one point he said in his charming brogue “Tha next time I see yah, I’ll kill yah.” I told him I hoped it wouldn’t come to that and asked what my offense was. Apparently he’d seen me looking at his woman. Turns out he had a thing for the bartender. I said that I really didn’t know any other way to buy a drink that didn’t involve at least glancing in her direction and suggested that maybe he’d have to buy the rest of my drinks to solve the problem. He relented and agreed that maybe I could look at her after all. We talked more and ended up the night laughing and chatting. He was a strange fellow, that’s for sure.

Blarney Castle and the Stone
The stone is said to bestow the gift of elloquence on the lips which kiss it. Mine were among those which did.

The crowded clouds like fists of grey and silver tumbled overhead, promising to press down against the castle grounds. Intrepid peddlers stood at the ready to receive the custom of those displaced from the open to the overhang of shop stalls by the silvery earth-bound needles and pins. But for the moment the sky cleaved and displayed its color like a strutting peacock.

Ten Euros paid to walk around the grounds and climb the ramparts along the twisting turning narrow spiral staircase. Gentlemen should allow the ladies to pass in front for a better view; ladies should pay mind to their skirt length. When climbing, you’re eyes to arse with the visitor ahead.

Fred Zeppelin and the Random Band
On my last night in Cork I was walking around just after dinner and saw a bar that had a lot of people standing outside and all of the windows were plastered with band posters. Sounds good to me. I went on in and ordered a pint. The bartender asked if I was going upstairs and I asked what was up there. Turns out it was a concert so I went on up.

The cover was 3 Euro but when I started counting my small coins trying to make up the last Euro they let me know that what I had was good enough. The tiny room held in a hailstorm of fuzz guitar, slap bass, and thunderous drums. The young crowd all moved their heads in unison with the tunes, their haircuts and clothing reminiscent of something from an early Sex Pistols show.

While the first band started packing up their kit, I spoke with a young guy wearing a Mastodon t-shirt. They’re a small band that nobody’s ever heard of from Atlanta so it was wild to see a kid from Cork Ireland wearing it. Apparently they’re big over here in certain crowds. He gave me the information on a few of the others in the room. This guy was his friend from when he was 12; that girl is dating the lead singer of the next band; that guy there plays guitar and has a half a bottle of booze in his jacket. It was like a raucous party of friends that I’d stumbled into.

The second band played and the place got even louder and more full. I went to get a second drink and just asked for the cheapest draught they had. The bartender informed me that the cheapest was Beamish but that it took a long time to pull. The fastest cheapest draught was Fosters, so I had a pint of that instead. That explained why everybody upstairs was drinking a lighter colored beer rather than the typical porter.

I talked to a few more people in the audience, including one guy who was to be the drummer in the headlining band. He said it was not his instrument of choice and that he didn’t know how to play the drums. I also found out that they’d only practiced a couple of times in the last month or so. This was going to be an interesting show.

At some point I started talking to this huge hulk of a guy, probably 6’8″ and 300lbs. He was a hugger. And a kisser. And a slapper. And he spared no one, even the foriegn newcomer.

The second band finished their set and the third band, the headliners, took to the stage – a place so small 4/6 of their band had to stand on the floor for most of the show. They all took off their shirts except for the singer who strode up in a woman’s dress and proceeded to wrap the magnetic tape from an old VHS around his face. The guitarist, my first friend there, donned a Transformers mask with sunglasses taped to them. And they had a backup singer playing a toy guitar which they’d amped up. Oh yeah, this was going to be an interesting show.

After tuning up, the singer introduced themselves by saying “I don’t know why we’re the last show, we really suck!” And with that they launched into their songs. You could tell that the individuals were good at their instruments – the drummer was no Dave Grohl, but not terrible – but that they hadn’t practices together. The four out front danced around and smashed into the crowd, which by now had crowded the stage to the point where it was difficult to hae enough room for the band to play. At one point they invited the crowd to get naked. Some guys took off their shirts, but that was all the response they could muster. It really was an interesting show!

I went downstairs to get one more round of Fosters and when I came back they were destroying the toy guitar. People were taking turns stomping on it and the big moose was lifting people up and dropping them to get extra propulsion. So I hopped on the ride. In the end we smashed the thing into pieces. The guy who was playing it said that now it’s going to ruin the sound for the next show. Someone else allowed that he’d ruined its sound for this show, so it was fair.

All in all, Cork is a wonderful place. The people were
ery warm and hospitable and I felt at home almost everywhere. It was like a big village where everybody still has that neighborliness that makes for great cities.

Riga Rainbow


Riga Hostels

There are two hostels in Riga with the name “Riga Hostel” which is confusing. Apparently, some guy named Juan used to work at Riga Hostel and then left and started his own place. He has apparently told all of the websites and his guests that the place changed names and moved locations. I didn’t stay there so I don’t know if it’s true or not, but there was quite a bit of confusion on the Internet about it when I was reading. I am just repeating what I heard at Riga Hostel from one of the employees. So if you’ve booked one of the two of these hostels, make sure you know which one you’re going to.

Kunming and the Cloudland Hostel

We arrived in Kunming on Monday morning and set out to find a hostel. We had heard good things about the Cloudland Hostel from other travelers, so we headed there. It is down a side alley, a bit tucked away, which makes it quieter and less busy. Walking in the door, we saw a small goldfish pool, ping pong table, and a pool table in the outside courtyard. We walked past these to the reception desk where they confirmed that they had a room for a couple of nights. It wasn’t ready yet, so we set our bags down and went into the lounge/restaurant area to wait. It has free Internet, a very cozy interior, and a nice café feel.
One interesting thing is that it is heated by what I call “hot pots” because I don’t know what their real name is (not to be confused with the food dish “hot pot” which is a bunch of stuff in a bowl sitting over a flame in the middle of the table). These hot pots are small cast-iron cauldrons into which are placed pieces of charred wood. Because the wood is already burned, it produces no smoke and little flame. However, it gives off the perfect amount of heat to have close to a couch with a group of travelers huddled in conversation.
We ordered some food from the kitchen and a pot of green tea. The tea was served, drank, and the water refilled in the span of 15 minutes. Kunming is a chilly town, it was about 12C upon arrival here. The food eventually came and we ate quickly. It was quite tasty.
When our room was available, we went up and dropped off our things. We got a double room, since we would be here a couple of days and wanted to be able to spread out quite a bit to rearrange things in our bags. There were also quite a few electronics devices which needed charging and so would have to be left in the room while we couldn’t watch over them. The double room had a second room attached with a couch and a table, presumably for entertaining guests. One other notable thing was the lack of heat! But that was not a big problem and really only served to promote hanging out in the lounge.
After a quick shower and change of clothes, it was back to the lounge for some Internet time and to watch some DVDs on the huge TV setup. We were determined not to put on our boots or leave the place again for the rest of the day. It was time to relax and rest up after the grueling pace we’d set over the past few days. We accomplished our mission and had dinner and a beer there in the evening.
The next day, we were going to try to visit the Stone Forest, a local tourist attraction which seems to be a bunch of stones deposited at random in a field. I’m not that familiar with it, but it was apparently formed naturally while the region was underwater. It is about 2 hours outside of the city by bus. Private tours only accept between 4 and 6 people, the bus transfers are difficult and don’t get you all the way, and group tours had already left for the day.
So instead, we went to a set of mountains north of the city with the travelers we met from Belgium. These were nice, but a bit touristy, with a flea-market of sorts selling overpriced junk. But there were a couple of man-made features and shrines to see and photograph. We haggled with a guy to bring us all the way back to our hostel (we had to take a taxi, 2 busses, and a private van up) for 50Y, or less than $1 for each of the 7 of us.

Our train to Chengdu didn’t leave until 8pm, so we had pretty much an entire day to kill before getting on board. As it turned out, a friend of a friend of ours was living and working in Kunming! So we were able to get in touch with her and we met her for dinner. On the walk there, it started to rain for the first time since we’ve been traveling. It wasn’t fun.

But when we got to the restaurant we dried out fairly quickly. The dinner was good, and we ate some fairly exotic things. Like a dish made with black-skinned chicken, deep fried goat cheese, and a deep fried peanut dish. It was all really good, especially the peanuts. We caught a cab back to the hostel to get our stuff and then off to the train station.

The Q Club
The Q Club is the name we gave to a group of Quebecois and French people who are staying at the hostel. When we arrived on Monday morning, they were parked on the couch watching movies. When we went to bed that night, they were in the same position. We talked about it all day amongst ourselves and figured that they were probably just taking a break from doing things, the same way we were.
But the next morning, they were there again before we arrived! Watching movies and sitting on the couch like a bunch of couch potatoes. After we returned from the mountains, at around 6pm, they were still where they were sitting when we had left. So Brian decided he needed to take over the couch. He had to sit through a couple of bad movies, but with the help of our Belgian friends, he did it. The Q Club is probably on that couch right now, fearing that at any moment a multinational coalition will retake their spots.