A Travellerspoint blog

Prague

A few days in Prague

sunny 10 °C
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Prague is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in Europe if not the world. It straddles the fringes of east and west Europe and it has an extensive and rich history hidden within it’s maze of gothic architecture and cobblestone streets.

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I arrived in Prague via train from Berlin which was quite pleasant, having a window seat to view the changing scenery from Berlin’s barren, swampy flats to the Czech Republic's more captivating jagged hillsides, carving rives and almost-greenery alluding to the spring that refused to appear. From the central station I walked through the city centre undulating down the river that the city focuses around. The river's flow is tiered just upstream from the famous Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is quite spectacular with its various statues along its length. Filled with buskers, beggars and hoards of tourists the bridge is almost always busy, but the view is grand; upward to the castle-come-palace, the river itself as well as the church steeples, magnificent architecture and landscape surrounding.

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My hostel which was located on the opposing side of Charles bridge, aptly named Charles Bridge Economic Hostel. It was in an awesome spot and was a great value place; they had unlimited free coffee, wireless internet as well as really well kitted-out hostel rooms featuring a kitchen & lounge area to use.

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The following day I took a tour of the city, which was a bit awkward while travelling on my own but the guide was a fairly young local, who gave an enthusiastic and recount of the city's rich history. The tour packed in elements of most of main sites, such as the slightly underwhelming astronomical clock, the central square, churches, synagogues and the Jewish Quarter among other things. Filled in were the key aspects of the history of Prague which was all very intriguing, especially the relationship during Nazi period and the communist era, specifically the Prague Spring.

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The other days of my stay I spent some time exploring Prague's city centre, old quarter and generally getting a bit lost. I found a few bars and cafe's that served Prague's local brews; including a more touristic place that had 30 local beers on tap and friendly staff. The draw back was the overly loud tourists... but I survived. The Czech's are proud of inventing the Pilsner style beer; the typical pale lagers that we drink today. On tap I sampled a few different beers; including an interesting pepper beer which was only missing the accompanying steak dinner. It's interesting to note that many of Europe's beers are much stronger that off-the-shelf beers of Australia that typically run 4-5% Alcohol content. Its was not uncommon to find beers of 7 or 8%, if not more, but I often didn't realise this until I stood up and went to leave; only after 2-3 beers haha!

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I took one evening to explore the castle that sits above the city. A trivia piece: Mick Jagger & The Rolling Stones donated lighting equipment to light up the castle during the night so people could enjoy it, because the city could not afford the expense at the time. Today, the castle, along with other monuments are spectacularly lit up and give a unique view from the day time. Wandering around the castle at night; was quite eerie as I only saw one couple taking photos as well the intimidating guards who just stared me down without saying anything. The following day I took more time to explore the rest of castle buildings and architecture. I wasn't too fussed about the interior of the buildings and particularly wasn't keen to part with my cash which was the only way to gain entry. Externally, the most imposing is the cathedral, boasting gothic architecture with gargoyles and imposing towers reaching high up above the rest of the complex. The other buildings are a more modest architecture and clearly later additions and rebuilds, as well as gardens and tourist shops & cafes within. The view from the castle is quite amazing, overviewing the river and the rest of the city is quite spectacular.

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Finally, I found a cheap flight back to the Netherlands from Prague Airport, which was relatively easy to get to utilising the trams and buses. This was the only time I had to use the public transport as my accommodation was very central and the majority of the sites are within a close geographical area. If I had more time I probably would have take time to visit the concentration camps outside the city and also visited the unrelated Bone Church. Overall I had a great time in Prague; there was a lot to see and the city deserves more time than I gave it. It also has a lively night scene that I neglected unfortunately. But that is the paradox of travelling having a limited time and practically unlimited activities to do & sights to see.

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Posted by Jack Chaffey 10:49 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged prague hostel czech_republic Comments (0)

Berlin in 3 Days

I was somewhat skeptical about what Berlin would be like for three days. I’d been given mixed reports, however I was pleasantly surprised by how much there was to explore. I really didn’t have a strong connection to Berlin’s war history as many visitors would, however after learning more on the topics I came away with a much broader view of the history.
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What proved to be useful was the Berlin tourist card. At 27 Euros for 72 hours, it included a myriad of discounts, a map and included all city public transport for the time.

On our first afternoon and evening we explored Berlin around the main tourist areas; deciding to do the most typical tourist thing and go to the viewing deck pragmatically the TV tower. Akin to Sydney’s Centre Point Tower or Paris’ Eiffel tower the TV Tower gives panoramic views around the City’s metropolis as far as the eye can see. The view was undeniably good but it wasn’t the greatest day to view the city. The most striking thing for me was how big the city is and the number of large residentially buildings of 6-10 storeys that sprawl across the city. It just shows to densely urbanized the city is when you compare it to Australian cities where a building of that size would jut out of the landscape noticeably. The TV tower was an overall good experience but between the line for the ticket, 1 hour wait, then line for security, then the line for the lift and considering the price, and sours the experience a little; I think the wait time would become quite ridiculous in summer when its busier.

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Between buying the ticket for the TV tower and our turn to go to the viewing deck we managed to visit the Cathedral, boasting a huge dome roof. Whilst remarkably imposing on the landscape the building seems awkwardly out of place given the historical context of Berlin when most buildings are relatively young. The cathedral was ambitiously built as an attempt to rival those of other famous cities such as London & Paris. Unfortunately, for me at least, whilst it is a grand church with stained glass, imposing architecture and grand features it is a little too forced, especially given its short history.

The following day we decided to take a city walking tour by a company called Insider Tours. They had really good reviews on trip advisor and offered a few different themed tours such as a general Berlin tour, Third Reich Tour and a Berlin Now tour. I was honestly skeptical about going on a tour; it just seems so cliché and touristy to me to walk around in a big group with a figurative neon sign glowing ‘tourist’ on my back. But gladly I changed my opinion! The guide Barry was an Irish ex-pat and gave us a great tour of Berlins ‘best of’ in about 4 hours. He really knew his stuff and wasn’t just repeating a set monologue. I was really stoked as to how much I learnt about the city, its history and how much we saw in such a short time. There are lots of tours around and the tour guides work on a ‘freelance basis’ so I think you can get lucky with any tour really, but I would recommend the Insider Tours. They had great reputation online and were great value; 9euros with our Berlin tourist card (there was also student/senior discounts at 10euros).

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The tour covered the major attractions of Berlin; Brandenburg Gate, walk past museum island, Reichstag (the parliament), Holocaust memorial, various buildings, Checkpoint Charlie & Hitler’s bunker site amongst other sites. Along the way Barry our guide pointed out a number of various sites of importance that were not necessarily on the tours itinerary but were of significance to Berlin’s story. He also gave us tips on what to explore further in your own time.

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We took the evening to wander about and find a place to eat and also found a couple of bars to explore. There were plenty of places to eat, and Berlin has some very ‘cool’ places; lots of little bars packed with locals as well as there were plenty of cafes and restaurants. Our hostel itself located in Rosenthaler Platz was really great. It was really clean and had its own little bar downstairs, albeit dominated by UK backpackers. Located beside a large intersection moments to the underground it was close to lots of bars and restaurants nearby and getting around the city was a treat.

The public transport in Berlin was oh so easy, and the tourist pass included all travel making life so easy! I think the most we ever waited for a train or underground was 6 minutes, and there were so many options to get around; buses, trams, trains and underground ‘subway’.

Our final day we decided that we would take another tour to explore more of the history of Nazi Germany in the Third Reich Tour. This proved to be a pretty good choice, as again our guide took around the city, this time with a focus on a more serious note. The tour was a mix of interesting sites, memorials and historical information. It did have a few overlaps with our other tour but perspective of the tour was distinguished so as not to be repetitive.

In the afternoon we took our best guess to visit one of the three main museums the city offers. There are three huge museums on a small ‘island’ in the city centre; the Old Museum, New Museum and the Pergamon. The Pergamon is named after the Pergamon Alter that is reassembled inside and the museum build around it. It was a pretty epic reconstruction and I found it hard to believe it was entirely reassembled given the grand size. It housed a number of other artifacts from Greek, mesometamian and Roman history. Whilst it was a good experience, part of the museum was not open, and if we knew this we may not have made the choice to go there with such other quality museums on offer and our limited time frame.
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My tips for Berlin are:
• Get a tourist card (The museum island option is probably worthwhile too)
• Take a walking tour
• Learn a little German (I didn't haha)
• Research and pick the museums to visit (there’s so many to choose from its overwhelming)

Gaby & I really enjoyed our time here and the history was really interesting; even if its not your special interest.

Posted by Jack Chaffey 10:43 Archived in Germany Tagged history germany tours berlin Comments (0)

Crazy Weather

snow -4 °C

From This (+14C)

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To This (-4C)

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It seems as though I havent entirely missed out on the wild weather thats been going on at home! A couple of weeks ago we had some some and I rushed out to take photos, thinking it would be the last of the season! All was seeming true as the weather improved, so much so it was above 10c! Suddenly everyone seems to be unemployed or 'sick', because rather than at work they were in the park, wandering the streets, filling the cafes and generally soaking up the rare warmth and sun. I think for the first time ever I called a 12c day 'warm'.

Just as quick as the warm sunny weather had come it turned into a fairly miserable, but still not too cold rainy few days. The cloudy weather trapped in what was left of the warmth, until another cold snap set in! Of course this cold snap appears when my girlfriend, Gaby, came to visit from Geneva. Maastricht was suddenly the coldest place in the Netherlands and claims a snow dump to be envied by the annual snowfall in the Snowy Mountains!
Not only did it snow, but it snowed sideways with the wind seriously chilling my fingertips and ears! Nonetheless, the snow does make the city look really beautiful.

We still get around the town and see everything and had a good time trying to stay warm in bars and cafes.

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Posted by Jack Chaffey 07:53 Archived in Netherlands Tagged snow spring cold maastricht limburg crazy_weather Comments (0)

More Maastricht!

overcast -1 °C

I thought it was time to give a spiel about the historic city that I'm living in. The place is really old, disputably the oldest city in the Netherlands and this really adds to the character, something that Australia just doesn't quite have in the same way. Maastricht is situated in the southernmost tip of the Netherlands and the city is divided by the river Maas/Meuse down the middle and is surrounded by Belgium & Germany. It is basically as far away from the nations capital as possible, but only 2.5 hours away by train. This highlights how relatively small the country is...but also how good the trains are, they even have WiFi internet!

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A brief history
Maastricht was originally part of the Roman empire and many cobblestone streets, battlements and towers still exist as testiment. Like everywhere in the Netherlands, there are lots of big Churches dominating the landscape, reflective of the original Roman occupation. Catholicism still represents the dominent organised religion, with around 1/4 of the population identifying. However around 1/2 the population doesn't identify with any organised religion; perhaps a reason for, or reflection of, the liberal views held on the soft drugs, gay marriage and sex etc. None the less, Maastricht is probably one of the more conservative cities of the Netherlands, possibly described as the 'Least Dutch city in the country'. Unlike the melting pot of Amsterdam, Maastricht follows a more relaxed pace and a more conservative view.

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The citys history extends back to BC times, however Roman use began in 1 Century AD where a bridge was constructed. Prior to this in BC times, Celtics and even Neanderthals occupied the area, especially near shallow parts of the river to facilitate crossing. From 1st century AD the Roman bridge was vital as a means of trade and subsequently Maastricht became a small settlement.
During the Middle ages Maastricht grew as a city, still under Roman control, particularly expanding in 10th-12th centuries and was economically strong until the 15th century. This was due to the important location between Aachen (now in Germany) and Liege (Belgium) as well as locations further a field. Religious wars marred the cities growth until the 19th century. During this time the city was conquered by the spanish for 50 years, before being returned to Dutch control in 1632. Fortifications around the city were established as a way to protect the city, especially sought after due to its location on valuable trade & supply lines.

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One of three musketeers!
The famous Three Musketeers have a special place in Maastricht history, as it is the location the 'd'Artagnan' suffered his fate as the French attempted to take the city in 1673, part of the Dutch-franco wars.

Coffee-Shops: Not a cafe
IN the netherlands the sale of soft drugs (Cannabis) is legal if it sold in a licensed, regulated & taxed store, referred to as a Coffeeshop. Coffeeshops are licensed to sell only Cannabis and cannot sell alcohol, however they sometimes sell coffee, drinks and snacks, as well as provide a place to smoke cannabis indoors. Maastricht and other cities close to the border implemented a plan to stop drug tourism, whereby sales could only be made to residents. This was to stop any antisocial behaviour by international customers who came solely for the purpose of consuming drugs. The initiative, as part of a national scheme, became unpopular and hence did not become implemented in Amsterdam. The employment provided by and economic benefits of the drug-tourism export is seen by many as outweighing the negative aspects. As a consequence, many Coffeeshops in Maastricht have closed, however people comment on a rise of illegal drug dealers, who are unregulated, and are likely to sell harder drugs, since the introduction of the new law.

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Maastricht University
The university that I'm studying at is separated into faculty schools across the city, with a central library in the city. The School of Business & Economics (SBE) that I study at is located in the inner city, and the various offices are spread across a mix of new and old buildings on the city block the SBE occupies. Maastricht is becoming an increasingly prestigious university as shown by its increase in the world universities rankings to #111. It ranks highly in other areas especially in the Business and Economics School. The work is naturally quite intense, and the 'semester' is divided into two blocks where students typically take only two courses concurrently but for a shorter period, unlike Australia where four courses are studied concurrently, less intensely, for a longer period. Regular students are also required to take a study skills course at the end of each semester. They also teach in english, which is essential for me unfortunately!

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Geography & more
The river that gives the city it's name runs the length of the Netherlands, as well as through Belgium and then to its origins in France. On the river are various boats, some for shipping and others for tourism cruises to neighbouring areas. Most of the Netherlands is only just above sea level. The country is really flat which lends to the practicality of bicycles as a means of transport for everyone young and old. Parts of the Netherlands closer to the coast are actually below sea level due to huge land reclamation projects in the 19th century. Windmills were used to pump out water, and dykes are in place to keep the water out.

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Bicycles & Roads
Bicycles are the best and cheapest way to get around. Every university student owns a bike! The whole country is really bicycle friendly with lots of paths and allocated bicycle lanes on roads make it easy. It did take me a while to get a hold of sticking to the right though, and I occasionally slip back into the keep left mentality. My bike is a really typical student bike; its really old, single speed and girls style. Its been resprayed and the brake is the 'back-pedal' style, and its not that efficient. But it gets me to uni and back quickly, and also to bars... So far I havent crashed, but its very flat and my single gear doesnt go fast. I dont think i've seen anyone wear a helmet, and by the same token I havent seen anyone fall or get injured. Most people ride at a relaxed pace and other road users are polite and cautious. I think pedestrians pose the biggest risk to stepping out in front of you!

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The Dutch People
I really like the Dutch, they are really helpful and kind. I especially appreciate that they almost all speak some english, and they don't seem to mind that I dont speak Dutch. Nonetheless I want to be able to speak a bit more of the language just as a courtesy. Considering that many Australian would get easily frustrated if someone did not speak english, the Dutch are not reluctant to speak English to you. Almost 90% of Dutch people know English, and 70% speak German. Most Dutch speak multiple languages to some extent, and there is a strong focus on languages in schools. The Dutch are a very honest and frank people who don't beat around the bush. They have a good sense of humour, I think more akin to our humour than other European countries.

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Weather
Finally, I though I should comment on the weather! It's not so great unfortunately, its cold and wet a lot of the time, or just overcast. Theres a real contrast between the colours of Australian summer; its so green at home in the photos whereas its dominated by much subtle-er colours of grays & browns. However its a tough comparison; the end of a European winter and a drenched warm climate in Australia.

Posted by Jack Chaffey 07:53 Archived in Netherlands Tagged history train netherlands maas meuse maastricht south_netherlands limburg musketeers Comments (0)

Four days in Geneva

In the mountains!

semi-overcast 3 °C

Amsterdam to Geneva. You can see the top of the French Alpes in the Background as we descend into Geneva.

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After Carnival I spent a few days visiting my girlfriend, Gaby, in Geneva where she is studying. It was nice to travel with an Australian again! The four days we spent experiencing Geneva which is a very interesting a culturally diverse city. Also frightfully expensive, even compared to Australia. Unfortunately the weather wasn't that clear most of the time too see the mountains. Also regretted not bringing my ski gear to visit some of the nearby ski fields. Geneva had a really good public transport system using trains and trams, as well as 'Brams': these long bendy buses that were electric and connected to the tram grid.

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Most days we spent walking about Geneva generally soaking up the city vibe, which is hard to describe. Its a real mix! The city is quite dense, as its locked by the surrounding landscape, and the beautifully clean & sparkly blue lake. Theres a mix of really classic older buildings, as well as newer buildings that home to various banks and corporations in the city centre.

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The old town was beautiful with the old architecture that you typically imagine of classic european cities, complete with the cobblestone street and snow piled beside the roads. Lots of small boutique shops and trendy little bars fill the streets adding to the vibe of the city.

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Geneva has a cool mix of urbanisation where the city capitalises makes use of both its historical built environment and the natural surrounds; the snow capped mountains, beautiful parks and the lake. I was surprised to see how clean and blue the water in the lake was.

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My trip to Geneva was really fun, and the chance to spend a few days un-rushed in a city is a great way to get a real feel for the people and the place.

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Posted by Jack Chaffey 08:34 Archived in Switzerland Tagged snow architecture winter switzerland geneva short_trip lake_geneva french_alpes Comments (0)

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