Here's how it all started: In September of 2003, I was living at my brother's house in Atlanta. He was off covering the war in Iraq as a reporter for CNN, and, in his absense, I was crashing in his room. At the same time, I was working through the interviewing process with Turner Broadcasting to become a CNN production assistant. By the end of the month, it was becoming painfully obvious that I wasn't going to get the CNN job - they weren't returning my phone calls or emails. So, having finally given up on them, as they seemingly had done to me, I drove down to STA Travel on the campus of Emory University and purchased a plane ticket to London and a Eurorail pass. I figured that my inability to secure a job was God's way of telling me to get my ass out of town and see the world. I had the time, and I had the money - sort of. Two weeks later, I was on an American Airlines flight to Hethrow.
Armed only with a backpack, my passport, and a credit card, I set off to explore as much of Europe as I could handle. From October into late December, I managed to avoid the hustle and bustle that comes with summer travel, yet still enjoyed some fine weather all over the continent. In retrospect, though I managed to see a great many countries, I have to say that I moved rather quickly with my limited time. It would have been nice to have settled down a bit more, but I was anxious to see it all.
Here, you will find the highlights from my whistle-stop tour of Europe. While I managed to keep a fairly decent journal, I lost track somewhere near the end of the trip. Because of this, and due to the fact that it was a long journey, I've decided not to give a day-by-day account of my travels, but, rather, a country-by-country rundown of events.
As you will see, this trip took place prior to the boom in digital camera popularity, so my scanned photos aren't the best quality. In fact, even the composition of most of my shots is not what I would consider my best work. Telling a story with words and images is just something that gets better with practice - and, in this case, a little help from the internet.
By the way... the day after I got back from my trip, CNN called and offered me the job. Not bad, eh?
"Look, kids! Big Ben! Parliament!" So says Mr. Clark Griswald in European Vacation. After arriving in London and riding the tube into the city ("This train is for Cockfosters!"), I walked, somewhat aimlessly, through Hyde Park. Finally, I settled into Astor's Hyde Park Hostel, dropped off my bag, and spent the rest of the day cramming in a few sights. There was a glorious, sunny sky, and I was more than happy to walk around in the brisk air. First on the list was Trafalgar Square, followed by a visit to this big-clock-looking-thing. Really, though, I must say that it's rather impressive. Look, kids!
Across the stree (more or less) from Big Ben and Parliament sits Westminster Abbey (The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster), a stuctural masterpeice that dates back to the 13th century. I never bothered to take a propper tour because, quite frankly, I just didn't care all that much. However, it was quite nice from the outside, and I managed to have this shot taken by, apparently, a man with one leg. Thank you, good sir, for this wonderful photograph.
Stupid human tricks at the Tower Bridge - David Blaine lived in a glass box for 44 days. As lame as it sounds, and, trust me, it WAS lame, I stood there for the longest time, staring up at that idiot as he read a book. Clearly, Mr. Blaine needed some distraction. Unfortunately, propper security had finally been set up to prevent further egg-throwing incidents. Damn.
Welcome to Abbey Road. It's very funny to visit this famous Beatles site, as small groups of tourists loiter around the crosswalk, building up the courage to walk across the street for a photo. Eventually, one tourist turns to another and offers that they take each other's pciture so they can get the hell out of there. A few quick snaps are exchanged as passing cars slow down for this never-ending parade of idiots. The city actually installed flashing lights on either end of the street, warning drivers to mind the tourists. Anyway, here's a little Photoshop picture I created. I'm a horrible person.
Because the United Kingdom and Ireland are rather expensive places to be hanging out, my plan was to charge through the major componants of both nations and then scoot over to mainland Europe. So, after seeing London in England, I moved on to Cardiff, the capitol of Wales (Northern Ireland and Scotland make up the other two parts of the UK, by the way). I found a bed at the very friendly, and very quiet, Cardiff Backpackers Hostel, and enjoyed another sunny day wandering around Cardiff Castle and the surrounding area.
During the daytime, Cardiff likes to pretend that it's a calm, relaxed city. Even the grounds just outside Millennium Stadium, the rugby Mecca seen here to the left, are peaceful and heavenly. In fact, everything remained this way until later in the night when a few of us travelers from the hostel emerged from a restaurant only to find that all hell had broken loose. Drinking, fighting, yelling, and general debauchery spilled out onto the streets as Cardiff turned into the biggest party I had ever seen. Seriously, to this day, I am yet to find another city that manages to lose its collective mind for no apparent reason. It was great. I've explained this to some Brits that I've met and they all smile and say, "Well, that's Cardiff."
Here I am with B.K. on the deck of our overnight ferry to Ireland. I couldn't pronounce his name, so I just called him by the two-letter nickname of one of his fellow Korean contrymen, Major League Baseball pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim. With the Welsh port city of Swansea glimmering in the distance, we set sail for Ringaskiddy (just outside Cork). The boat was like a refuge camp. As some of us sat in the bar drinking beer, many others curled up on whatever floor and couch space they could find on the ship, passing out for the night. The smart ones, upon boarding, made immediate dashes for the good sofas and best quiet, dark spots - I saw an entire family huddled up under a stairwell. Though it was a cold, uncomfortable journey, I was pleased to enter Ireland by sea.
After arriving in port, I boarded a bus that drove a number of us into Cork. Traveling, now, with another American I met on the boat named Colin, we checked into Sheila's Budget Accomodations - which was fine, but nothing special. Still tired and cold, we decided just to wander around the city and find some breakfast. With a little more energy, we explored more of this fantastic town, and finally piled into a bar at night for a Guinness. I had waited until reaching Ireland to drink one, and it was, without question, spectacular. Eventually, Colin traveled to Dublin, and I hopped on a bus for Galway. (photo: www.muc.edu)
If I had to spend the rest of my days in one city in Ireland, Galway would be the place. With narrow, cobbled streets and quaint shops and cafes, there was nothing I didn't like about this university town on the western coast. I stayed at Barnacle's Hostel, which was a fine place in the heart of everything.
The highlight of my stay was a visit to the Crane Bar, a tiny pub at the end of town that my friend Dave Mallen had told me to check out, promising some great, traditional Irish music. He was right. I think it's safe to say that one could take a short vacation to Galway, spend every night at the Crane Bar, and come home completely refreshed, and satisfied that the world is good. (photo: http://boldeire.free.fr)
Tired of buses, I hitched three rides on my way from Galway to Dublin. Each driver offered an interesting story and some good history on the country and surrounding areas. Really, where it's safe, hitching is the best way to get around. In Dublin, I stayed at another Barnacle's hostel, close to the trendy and expensive Temple Bar District. I ended up, that first night, at the Quays Bar, watching soccer and throwing back pints of Kilkenny. There, I ended up meeting a few local guys who were already three sheets to the wind. We talked for a while and I ended the night by helping to walk one of them to the bus stop - he was beyond drunk. The next day, he explained in an email, "Chap, I fell asleep on the bloody bus." (photo: www.toddadams.net)
The next day, I decided to switch hostels, going from Barnacle's to Backpackers Ireland - the former being a little too pricy and stuffy for my liking. Backpackers wasn't as nice, but it was definately more laid back. Once that was taken care of, I felt a little more free to explore Ireland's capital. Other highlights from Dublin included visits to St. Patrick's Cathedral and a museum that had recently put up a creepy portrait of U2's Bono. His eyes follow you around the room, and he seems to age depending on your viewing angle. (photo: www.math.ucsb.edu)
After hitching a ride into Belfast, I booked a ticket on the Stena Line ferry to Stranraer, Scotland. Getting a ticket was more difficult than it sounds. You see, Ireland was going on a bank holiday and Glasgow Celtic was playing at home versus Aberdeen in a Scottish Premier League soccer match. Without going into detail about the connection between this club and the Irish people... just understand that this was going to be a huge weekend in Glasgow. Every Irish man, woman, and child, it seemed, was planning to make the overseas voyage with me to Scotland to enjoy the festivities. The ride was short and easy, but I would soon enter a world of hurt. The moral of the story, as you will see, is don't mess with Glasgow when Celtic plays during an Irish bank holiday. (photo: www.ciltscotland.com)
Celtic Park in Glasgow - the cause of all my problems. After arriving in Stranraer with the Irish soccer fans, I attempted to hitch a ride to Glasgow. This never happened. Instead, I stood in the cold darkness for quite some time, and finally ended up on a random bus for Ayrn (followed by a train to Glasgow). It was late by the time I got there, and, to add insult to injury, there wasn't an available room in town. One hostel manager told me that he couldn't even rent me a common-room couch because he had already sold them off. Walking from street to street, passing by drunk soccer fans getting into perfect form for the next day's match, I finally found myself by Glasgow University. The short story is that I ended up crashing on the couch of some Scottish law student's apartment. I met him while he was out walking around with his girlfriend. My last option, had he not hooked me up, was sleeping on the floor of an academic building on campus. The next morning, I got out of Glasgow as quickly as I could, hitching a ride to Edinburgh from a guy who, conveniently, lived right next to the Argyle Backpackers Hostel. This was a terrific place to stay, and Edinburgh was one of my favorite cities from the trip. (photo: www.soccer-stadiums.com)
After walking around town, strolling through parks, castles, and ancient buildings, I wasn't surprised to learn that Edinburgh is a rather touristy city. The Royal Mile, as they call it, runs from the Holyrood House at the bottom of the hill to Edinburgh Castle at the top - Holyrood house serves as the official Scottish residence of Britains Royal Family. Cafes, shops, and buskers dressed as William Wallace grace the streets of the Royal Mile, which is all-around stunning in its preservation.
Just on the outskirts of central Edinburgh, rest two commanding mountain structures known as Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags. Visiable from pretty much anywhere in the city, it seemed beyond obvious that this was something I would have to climb. Walking there took only about a half hour, and it allowed me to see more of the city outside the touristy areas.
The Firth of Forth is the body of water seen behind me in the distance, as I stand atop Arthur's Seat. The climb only took me about 45 minutes, and it offered some of the finest views of Edinburgh. Really, I didn't spend nearly enough time in this amazing country, and I would have liked to have seen Scotland's highlands. However, this would all have to wait for another future trip - I needed to get back to London for my flight to The Netherlands. This involved a cozy, overnight busride.
I caught a 3pm flight to Mastricht on Ryan Air, leaving from London's Stansted Airport... which is likely closer to Cairo than it is to London. My college buddy, Ted, who was living near Mastricht in the town of Herlen, picked me up at the airport and took me back to his apartment. We grabbed some dinner, had a few drinks with some of his Dutch friends, and then took a short, late-night trip on the Autobahn to Aachen, Germany. That's where we met this lovely lady, a physics professor at the nearby technological university who was researching new advancements of hydrodynamics. Wait, no... I'm thinking of somebody else. This girl's a stripper. Yup, she's a stripper.
I spent a few days in Herlen while Ted finished off the work week. During that time, I recharged my body after having stormed through the UK and Ireland. I also made a day trip to Maastricht and another to Valkenburg. At the end of the week, Ted and I hopped on a train for Amsterdam. It only took about 2.5 hours, and Ted put us up at the Reinasance. It should be noted, here, that Ted was beyond helpful to this penny-pinching, scruffy backpacker, and I truly couldn't have been more appreciative of his generocity. We toured the famous red light district, hit up a few bars, and really had a great time getting rowdy in this fantastic city.
We spent the next day roaming around town, hitting up the Heineken museum after a visit to Anne Frank House. This particular tour would ring with a special importance later on my trip when I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz in Poland. On a happier note, the Heineken museum was a pretty good time, and we took full advantage of the beer tasting at the end.
Shocker. More cold beers with Ted on another night out on the town in Amsterdam. We actually ended up meeting some of his German friends, forming a large, boisterous group of idiots. Anyway, it goes without saying that Amsterdam is a real full-throttle city. However, it's much more than a place to party. With unique architecture, a complex system of canals, and a population of people more keen to riding bikes than polluting the air, I found Amsterdam to be very unique and livable.
Ted and I parted ways in the train station in Amsterdam as I set off for Denmark - this would become a total mess of a journey. The long and short of it is that I ended up sleeping on a bench in a train station in Flensburg, Germany. However, earlier that night, I did manage to meet these two Italian girls. I shared a drink with Federica and Daniela in the train station in Duisburg, Germany, and met them again, later on in the trip, when I was visiting Rome.
he morning scenery outside the train on my way to Copenhagen was absolutely stunning. The city, itself, wasn't quite as impressive. This isn't to suggest that it was ugly - it wasn't. I think, for whatever reason, I was just sort of expecting to step out of the station and find myself in a place that resembled Dartmouth's campus. I really don't know where I got that idea, but it sort of set me up for disappointment. When I exchanged some money and learned that the US dollar was terribly weak to the Kroner, I was even more soured on Denmark. Never mind that the people were incredibly friendly, and never mind that the the women were among the most beautiful I have ever seen, I was more concerned about what I paid for a lousy hot dog on the sidewalk.
I checked into the Sleep in Heaven hostel, paying about $17 dollars for a dorm room. Dorm nothing. This was an army barrack. There had to have been about 90 beds in this giant bunker. Beyond the lobby, it was a total dump - cold and dark. I began to think that the name Sleep in Heaven was a reference to, not my actual accomodation, but, rather, where I'd end up if I happened to simply cut myself in this hell hole. It was no surprise that this was the only place on my Europe trip where I was bitten by bed bugs. I should've known better. You can easily find their funky, flash-happy website on the internet, but you won't find any photos. Anyway, I ended up snagging one of the free public bicycles, and rode it all over the city. I got lost a few times, but that was (and always is) fine by me - it allowed me to really see the neighborhoods. Copenhagen, I can report, isn't such a bad place. It's quite nice, actually... which is more than I can say for the wheels of my public bicycle.
I had been told that one of the city's hidden gems was the small, hippie commune known as Christiania (est. 1971). Inside this autonimous zone, where no photos are allowed, one could find what seemed to be a completely harmoneous groove of about 1,000 inhabitants (including 250 children). Of course, despite whatever noble reason for which this place managed to exist, it was widely known (and sought out) for drugs. Just walking up and down the streets, hash could be found out in the open, cut into small, dark squares. The city of Copenhagen had been less than pleased with Christiania, and hoped to eventually shut it down for good. This lead the inhabitants to post security guards at the enterences. With walkie-talkies in hand, and photos of known undercover police officers posted by the gates, these guards were the first line of defense when it came to keeping things afloat. That was Christiania. Ah, but why the past tense? I really cannot say with any certainty whether or not Christiania still exists. Some say it does. Others say it's gone. I'm guessing that it's still there in some form, but I can only explain it as it was when I was there.
Sadly, this is Copenhagen's main tourist attraction. The statue of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid is something I decided not to visit. Instead, I spent the rest of my one day in Denmark tooling around on the bicycle, finally leaving it along the sidewalk for the next guy. With not much else to see or do, and really just wanting to head down to Berlin, I decided to get out Denmark the very next day. However, as a parting note, I would ask that readers not judge this city or this country based on what I have written. The people really were fantastic, and the city did have charm. It just wasn't what this budgeted backpacker was looking for at the time. This is a perfect example as to why I enjoy traveling alone. When something doesn't feel right - move on! (photo: www.friendlyplanet.com)
I barely caught my morning train from Copenhagen to Berlin, stepping on board five seconds before it started to move. The highlight of the journey was a 45-minute ferry ride over a passage that juts out from the Baltic Sea. The train cars actually load onto the ship where the passengers can then get out, walk around on deck, and relax in the small cafe. Shortly after entering Germany, I changed trains in Hamburg and, after a smokey ride, finally arrived in Berlin's Ostbahnhof Station. From there, and with minimal faith in my travel ability, I took an S-Bahn sky-train to Alexanderplatz and the U-8 subway toward Wittenau, getting off at Rosenthaler Platz. At street level, an older gentleman kindly showed me the way over to The Circus - which, to this very day, still remains the greatest hostel I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Hence, the details on how to get there. Take notes.
Berlin is a pretty big place with immeasurable history. Whereas some large cities can be explored without assistance, I thought it might be a good idea to take a propper walking tour of Germany's capital. Of course, I also just wanted to sit around and relax on my first day (having just rushed through Denmark after the madness of Amsterdam). Waking up to a bright, sunny sky persuaded me to go ahead with the tour. As a general travel rule, when life gives you a nice day - USE IT WISELY. Our group's guide was an American studying German youth identity on a government grant. This added a cool, new perspective to all the famous sites we visited. Here, we find a section of the Berlin Wall.
The Brandenburg Gate is, perhaps, Germany's most famous structure. Constructed in 1791, it was commisioned by Friedrich Wilhelm II to represent peace. Ironically, the gate was later incorporated into the Berlin Wall during Communist rule. Today, it stands as a grand symbol of the reunification of East and West Berlin. On a side note, there is a hotel just off the square next to the Brandenburg Gate where Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby off the balcony. So, if world history isn't your thing, you can thank the strangest man alive for giving you something to care about. Crazy bastard.
Back at The Circus, there's always something to do at night. So, after watching some Celtic soccer at some random pub with a crazy Scottish girl and a dumbfounded American, we went back to the hostel's downstairs bar and threw back some big-boy German beers on Karaoke Night. Really, it doesn't take much to get me to do Country Roads... and, not to brag or anything, I can perform John Denver like a friggin' animal. Let me tell you something - you know who else likes renditions of American folk songs...
...cute Polish girls! In fact, three out of three cute Polish girls agree: Jarrett's singing rules! My new fans spread the word through the Polish underground and now I'm considered the David Hasselhoff of Eastern Europe. OK, I can't really back that up. But, I AM certain that Berlin is fantastic and everyone should go there and sing Karaoke at The Circus. Also, as an additional compliment to Germany - BEST KEBABS IN EUROPE. PERIOD.
The train ride from Berlin to Prague only took about five hours, passing by some of the most beautiful scenery in all of Europe. When I arrived in town, it took me just about forever to find Sir Toby's hostel. After asking several people for directions, I wound up just hiring a taxi for 100 crowns... which is about $4.
THE VATICAN CITY