Mon Oct 01, 2001 | day 21
As I write this, I am sitting in a bagel shop/cyber cafe in Prague, Czech Republic. It feels good to be here, where the internet costs about $2.00 an hour and the coffee and soft drinks are bottomless. This was not the case just 24 hours ago.
Let me back up a few days...
On Saturday, I left Tini's apartment at 7a and traveled east on a train bound for Berlin, Germany. Half way there, I stopped in the small town of Göttingen to meet an "internet friend." Meike and I have been talking online for almost a year so meeting in person was a wonderful experience. She is as nice as her emails portray her and as beautiful as her picture shows her. We walked around enjoying the city atmosphere. A warm Saturday like this brings out the townspeople from their colorful buildings to buy fresh produce and flowers sold by vendors. Unfortunately, I only had 5 hours in this great little town.
I jumped back on the train and arrived in Berlin at 9pm. Actually, I arrived in the far western outskirts of Berlin - a forested area called Wannsee. I had hoped to stay near the center of the city but not a single hostel had an available bed. But, never fear, I had something in case of an emergency such as this: a tent!
Unfortunately, I arrived at my campsite 45 minutes too late. The note on their gate was in three languages: "Dear Late Camper, We closed at 9pm but Camp Dreilinden down the street is open until 10pm." So I had a little less than 15 minutes to run a mile down a forest road wearing all of my gear (50+ pounds). Could I possibly do it?
Half way up the dark and forested road, it became obvious that the answer was "no." As I jogged, (read: wobbled at higher speeds than normal) I kept thinking that I was going the wrong way. The cottages on the road quickly were replaced by a deep forest. As with the cottages, the streetlights also became less frequent. I reluctantly continued on, becoming less and less certain that this was the right road as it became more and more dark.
The headlights of a lone car revealed my shadow in front of me as it approached from behind. I stuck out my thumb and hoped they would stop. My luck prevailed and a five minute car ride later, I was dropped off at the campsite at 10:02p.
The manager of the campsite had to be pulled out of the bar to open the office and check me in. It was apparent by the slurred German and the strong smell of alcohol on his breath that the office had been closed for more than just 2 minutes. Nonetheless, he was a friendly fellow and had fun trying to communicate to me even though he didn't speak English.
In the morning, I walked back down the road I was on the night before. It was a beautiful street with a forest on the left of me and a slowly moving river on the right. I waived at boaters who passed occasionally. They seemed equally transfixed on the natural world which surrounded us.
I arrived in central Berlin at 11:30a. I walked a few blocks from the station to find myself amid not thousands, but HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE!! My good fortune had placed me at the end of the annual Berlin Marathon just as the fastest runners were arriving! All around me I could hear bands playing, people cheering and tents billowed out the smell of grilled German sausages and hotdogs. 30,000 runners slowly made their way across the finish line and joined the growing party atmosphere. A band of 30+ drummers became the heartbeat of the city, the rhythmic pounding of the drums filling the area from 9a to 5p.
I couldn't have PLANNED a better time to arrive in Berlin.
However, the rain started slowly and soon gained enough energy to melt the good mood. With the good weather went the party goers and pleasant atmosphere. In no time at all, Berlin became a bleak city. I have talked with other travelers and we all agree: there is something about Berlin that sucks the life out of you in the wrong conditions. It is hard to put a finger on, but it is a city rebuilding ... no ... replacing it's history. One traveler from Canada said that "Berlin is a city that tries to deceive you." I agree. Large cranes dot the entire city like mammoth trees. It is said that there is more construction in Berlin than any other city in the world. They are trying to erase their past by building new modern buildings. So sad.
When I talk to other travelers who came from Berlin, we can't help but laugh when we mention the Brandonberg Gates. The usually impressive gates which are placed where East Berlin meets West Berlin are currently under construction as well. But instead of covering part of the large structure with scaffolding while they make repairs, the stupid people of Berlin decided to cover the WHOLE THING and paint a life-size picture of the gates, complete with the background! It was easily the biggest disappointment of my trip so far. It is so stupid, you have to just laugh.
At the end of the day, I had easily spent twice the money I should have. Berlin is a very expensive city. A night in a hostel cost me about $18. A 12 ounce cup of Coca-Cola runs about $2. I didn't even bother looking for a cyber cafe.
It didn't take much thought to decide to leave Berlin after just one full day of sightseeing. I only got to see a few sights (Checkpoint Charlie, Victory Column, Tiergarten Park) but it was enough for me to see what the city once was: home to the Berlin Wall, "the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the a failures of the communist system" as Kennedy once said. Berlin is sadly trying to remove any signs of this. Their cranes and construction is ironically destroying the culture of the city.
I left Berlin yesterday (Sunday) and arrived here in the Bohemian Czech Republic at 7p. I stepped of the tram and looked at the city laid out before me like a magical fairytale. The Prague Castle sat quietly ontop of the city, radiating with light. Walt Disney must have visited here and took notes. This is the type of castle that Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella were whisked off to when their prince rescued them.
This morning I woke up to a sunny Monday. The rain that blanketed the city last night is slowly drying and the weather is warming up. A nights stay in a hostel last night cost me as much as 32 ounces of Coca-Cola did in Berlin. So now can you see why I am so happy? It isn't just a wondrous place, but it's also affordable.
Unfortunately, most of Western Europe comes here to excape the high prices as well. I read that 90% of tourists come only to Prague when visiting the Czech Republic. The old stone Karlov Bridge spanning the Vltava River is clogged with tourists, students on a field trip and tour groups lead by umbrella wielding tour guides. Their wondering eyes are filled with hopes of finding magic and wonder in Prague. Although there is plenty of that to go around, I don't like weaving my way through crowds equal in size to that found in Disneyland.
I was planning on leaving tonight and heading south towards Cesky Budejovice, a small city on the southern border of the Czech Republic, but I think I will fend my way through the crowds and stay another night.
I bought a ticket to see an orchestral concert tonight at the Prague Castle. I already feel the magic and wonder grow in my chest as I think about hearing Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" and Mozart's "A Little Night Music" playing in the heart of the castle.
Tomorrow I will take off and head east, towards Austria. I again seemed to write a lengthy email, but I am excited to share with you just SOME of my experiences here on my journey. (Aren't you glad I didn't share all of them??)