A Daytrip to Helfstyn Castle

Iron wrought Helfstyn sign

There are a lot of good daytrips from Olomouc: a couple of castles, the zoo, caves, and long hikes. I couldn’t not take one while I was there, so I chose the Helfštýn Castle ruins. The train stopped at Lipník nad Becvou, a very old, medieval town one tenth the size of Olomouc. You know a place is good when the first thing you see is a train station tunnel covered in painted scenes of fairy tales. There were fighting knights, princesses, celestial demons, and a puss in boots standing in the gate of a castle holding a flagon of beer.

It was a quiet and cloudy day with a bit of drizzle. I only saw a few people around. There was no man selling ice cream cones on the way into town as there had been in Karlstejn; I entered town without preamble and walked for fifteen minutes past colorful little houses and a single gas station until I reached a small, quiet town center. It was a scaled down version of Olomouc’s main square, which was a scaled down version of Prague’s main square. I felt like I was in a nesting doll of settlements. The statues here were smaller, the rows of equally quaint buildings closer together, only here they formed an L rather than an actual square. Under repainted white archways stood a vinarna (winery), whose windows blocked out light with heavy wooden doors fitted with iron.


Holy Trinity Column

I wanted to see more of the Czech Republic. The back of the Prague map at Sir Toby’s listed some popular places and the logical next destination, where everyone headed after Prague, was a quiet little town in southern Bohemia called Ceský Krumlov. Its maze of medieval alleyways twisting around an unusually large castle reportedly took you back to the fourteen century, but with a sewage system. And there were 200 bars for 15,000 people; surely here I could stumble into my time-traveling medieval tavern and be set on adventure. The downside was that with so much charm oozing around every corner its tourist population topped its actual population in the summertime, and Prague had thoroughly worn me out on that account, not to mention the clubs, pubs, and busy big cities accounts, too.

I scanned the map further and the name “Poets’ Corner Hostel” caught my eye; sounds like just the kind of place I want to be, I thought. But it was in a town called Olomouc, in the opposite direction of Ceský Krumlov.

“What’s in Olomouc?” I asked the girl working at the front desk.

“Oh, nothing,” she rolled her eyes. “It’s the kind of place to go if you want to write a book for two days.”

Historic Prague

A slice of Prague

Ever since some family friends took a spontaneous trip to Prague five years ago and returned singing its praises, it shot to the top of my list of places to see, and on this trip, Prague was the city I was looking forward to more than any other, a lone bright star in an otherwise dark and obscure Eastern European sky. Visions of a dark, gothic paradise beckoned; if I was going to wander around narrow streets and stumble into a dim underground bar invited in by a single lamp swinging from its door and be transported to another time, it was going to be in Prague.

Unrealistic expectations aside, like most people who visit in the height of summer, I was let down. Prague wasn’t dark; it was Disney dark. Its buildings were painted in pleasant shades of peach, pink, cream, and powder blue, it was filled with colorful overpriced kitsch shops by the Charles Bridge, and every old, crumbling, looming church topped with threatening black spires was swarmed by loud tourists who wouldn’t let each other take a single photo. To say Prague was touristy is a gross understatement; every hour of every day people rubbed elbows in the historic districts, fighting each other to see the astronomical clock. The atmosphere in this pretty area was strictly commercial, which I found very unappealing.

Everything But the Main Course: The Outskirts of Prague

One of the creepiest things I have ever seen.

Someone described Prague to me like this: “it’s dark, it’s gritty, the buildings are covered in gargoyles, it comes at you!”

Prague’s train station was a multistory complex with a dollar store feel to it. A Burger King, generic coffee places with sparse seating, and stores selling tacky zebra striped handbags I often spot on Russian women at home desperately geared toward every tourist created the bleak atmosphere of a mall around closing time. There was even a stand in the middle of the ground floor devoted to rhinestones.

Here I quickly discovered the benefit to being a Russian speaker in the Czech Republic: Czech is written in Latin script, so it’s like reading Russian written in English (or like reading the emails I wrote home). Czech and Russian aren’t similar enough to be mutually intelligible, but they’re similar enough that when I saw the sign “sever,” I instantly knew that it meant not “to cut,” but “north.” Getting around was a cinch. I would’ve struggled more in Russia, at least until my reading speed picked up.

Berlin: See It Before It’s Gone

Berlin in sum

I was going to skip Germany altogether; I’m not one for sausage and beer. Plus, my main reason for going, Neuschwanstein Castle, was under renovation and offered obstructed views only (and turned out to date from the late 1800s, too new for my fairytale castle). But when I saw Cédric’s photos of the East Side Gallery, I decided to make a stop to a city I never planned to visit at all: Berlin.

Am I glad I did! It’s by far the most interesting place I visited. And how else would I have learned that Germany is basically America? It’s wealthy, spacious, and has an abundance of warehouses on the outskirts of towns. It doesn’t get more American than that.

As the train rode through Germany’s flat, forested landscape, I noticed that it looked exactly like Pennsylvania. Not Maryland, not Virginia, but distinctly Pennsylvania with its brown and green shades. When the Germans set out to see the world, they must have arrived at present-day PA and exclaimed, “This looks familiar!” and just stopped there.

I arrived in Berlin Hauptbahnhof, an impressively huge modern complex that made me think, yup, this is Germany, alright, and was delighted by the diversity of people walking through the station and the busy yet casual atmosphere helped by all the sun spilling down through the glass domed roof. I could settle here, I thought, reluctantly taking to the city at once.

From One End to the Other: Switzerland Part 3

Aboard the Glacier Express

The rest of my time in Switzerland was a little of everything. Cédric’s family and I drove across the country (a 3 hour drive with traffic) to their hometown of Gebenstorf near Baden in the German part. The first thing I walked into was South Park in German. It was strange to hear a dub of Cartmann.

My visit fell on the Baden festival, the biggest festival in Switzerland which happens once every five years (cinquennially?). Every five years they alternate between the small and big versions of the festival. This year it was the small one.

Trient: Population 300

Not a bad view to wake up to.

After Interlaken, I met up with my friend Cédric, whom I’d met in Wicklow, and his family. For two days, I stayed with them in a tiny town in the Canton du Valais in French Switzerland with a view of Mont Blanc. The region of the French and Swiss Alps is one of the prettiest in Europe, full of little towns of no more than half a thousand people running down sloping mountainsides or nestled in valleys. Trient, thankfully, is in a valley.

It’s a dream. Quiet, remote, bordered by unfettered mountains of pine forest and perfect blue skies and filled with fresh mountain air. You could walk it from end to end in ten minutes. There’s not much to it; a pink church on the hill, a rocky stream running through town, a few cows and horses grazing on the side, and little scattered houses, perfect in their loose and imperfect conformity to the Swiss ski lodge ideal implanted firmly in my mind. In the center is a hotel with one café, which I don’t think I ever saw anyone visit.

Tiny Country, Many Faces: The Story of Switzerland

Welcome to Interlaken

There is a joke, or not a joke, that even Swiss people don’t know what they are. The country has four languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch, which even most Swiss people don’t speak. When you take a tiny portion from a tiny population, that makes 200 people in the world who speak a language. That’s a joke; it’s probably closer to 2000. Imagine if your high school spoke its own language understood nowhere else in the world. In a way that is the case, at least if you went to my high school. They/we were a breed of their/our own (I just had my 5 year reunion).

Yet the Swiss are decidedly not German, or French, and definitely not Italian. You should hear the way the Swiss and Germans talk about each other. It’s funny because the other countries hate both of them. And nobody likes the French. And why not throw in the Austrians as well, since they don’t like anybody. I met an anthropology student from Vienna who literally went “blah!” while tossing his head when I asked what European cultures he studied (he was more interested in other continents… fair enough. But “blah!”?).

San Sebastian

Statue of Jesus at the top of Mount Urgull.

I needed a vacation from my vacation. A break from culture. Donostia-San Sebastian was just an hour’s bus ride from Bilbao.

If San-Sebastian and Bilbao were siblings, Bilbao would be the quiet, scholarly one who’s kind of boring and San Sebastian would be everyone’s favorite nonstop partier. The only reason 95% of people go to San Sebastian is to party.

I came there on Friday afternoon before the start of the Semana Grande, or “Big Week,” or, more accurately, “Week of Parties,” though I was told by the hostel staff that the parties go on all summer. Sure enough, here were all the people my age. The majority of the tourists, however, were Spanish. While America and Australia flocked to Barcelona, Spain vacationed in San Sebastian.

Impressions of Bilbao

Sunset in Bilbao

It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Bilbao as I had with no other city before. This wasn’t the head-spinning infatuation of first moments in Galway; this was a more subdued love, intellectual and appreciative (and longer lasting). It’s an odd mix of a typical European old town, industrial outskirts, and futuristic buildings that look like something out of The Jetsons. The odd thing is that it’s empty. A classy, spotlessly clean model of urban planning with a smattering of people to enjoy it.

I’m still in awe over Bilbao when I recall it: I have never seen a better laid-out city. Two-lane bike paths swerve along neat green patches and wide pedestrian walkways by the river. Modern bridges crisscross above and flow seamlessly out of and into the sidewalks. From afar the whole thing looks like a perfectly spaced, harmonious balance of logically interwoven ribbons. Bilbao makes so much sense.