Saturday, August 11, 2012

Central Europe (part 1)

After Scandinavia, my next stop was Hamburg, in Northern Germany. True to my original goal, I planned almost all of my stops in Central Europe to be in places where I could visit friends. In Hamburg, that friend was Cassi. Her and I (along with 50 other students) spent our last two years of high school taking classes together and sharing a dorm at a residential math and science program in Missouri (MASMC). The last time I had seen Cassi was at our graduation, just over eight years ago.

Despite the elapsed time, I immediately felt at home staying with Cassi and Stefan, her German boyfriend. They are both working on physics PhDs at the university in Hamburg, which means, in addition to showing me my third experimental physics lab since December (Berkeley, Mines, Max Planck), they indulged my nerdy-side with many meandering conversations about lofty subjects.
But my time in Hamburg wasn't all about quantum particles and climate change, we also watched the better part of three Euro-cup games. After Germany won the first game, the subway ride home was quite an experience: full of gold, red, and black facepaint and flags and lots of chanting (check out the video).

The weather in Hamburg during my stay was often overcast or rainy and not as warm as I would have hoped. That combined with the fact that I was still recovering from my Norway/Sweden sickness meant I didn't spend as much time exploring the city as I would have otherwise. I enjoyed sampling some of the different tastes the city had to offer, and I left with a positive impression, but the real highlight of my time there was spending time with Cassi again and getting to know Stefan. Thanks guys!

I have spent an awful lot of time during my travels working on itineraries and logistics. Sometimes I really enjoy it – it's like an optimization problem with difficult to quantify parameters, which is something that really appeals to my engineering nature. But other times it's just a pain the butt. Either way it's one of the most difficult-to-share parts of my my trip, so stick with me for a moment as I try to give you a little taste of the madness.

The number of options, revisions, hostels, trains, buses, flights, prices, sights, hosts, and visas I've pursued and not realized is at least ten times greater than the number I've actually taken. For example, the original post-Hamburg plan was to begin a clockwise circle though Dresden, Poland, Austria, Switzerland, and then back up through Frankfurt to Belgium and Amsterdam. This seemed be a great way to maximize my 10-day Eurorail pass as well. While in Hamburg, I figured out that running the same circle in a counter-clockwise direction would only add a couple hundred kilometers to my total travel distance, but would allow me greater flexibility to spend more time in places I hadn't seen before (e.g. Switzerland) if I liked them, or if I didn't, I could continue and spend that extra time in places I knew I enjoyed (i.e. Dresden).

This new-new plan seemed like a superb idea, so I left Hamburg and stopped for a couple days in warm and sunny Freiburg near the Black Forest and close to the German-Swiss-French border. I had a great time there enjoying the weather and university-town feel. My plan was off to a great start.

Overlooking Freiburg

Until, that is, I discovered just the night before I was supposed to leave Freiburg, that the weather was foretasted to be overcast and rainy the whole time I would be in Switzerland. My dreams of photographing beautiful sunny meadows while strolling through the Alps were clouding over. What to do?! I was already in southwest Germany, so going back to the orignal clockwise route wasn't a very good option. I looked into overshooting Switzerland and spending a couple days in sunny northern Italy or southern France while I waited for the weather to improve, but by the time I traveled there and back, neither place seemed like it would be worth it. I could also choose to skip Switzerland completely and move on to Austria, but I was really looking forward to spending some time in the mountains. I decided to wait until the morning to see if the forecast would improve.

By morning nothing had changed; there was still a 70% chance of rain. Since my rail-pass was based on days of travel rather than distance, I decided I would go ahead and take 5 hour train ride to Interlaken and see how the weather looked in person. If it looked bad, I would still have time on that day's pass to make it to somewhere else. Getting on a train in the morning without knowing which city or country you plan to sleep in that night is an interesting feeling.

It was sunny and gorgeous when I arrived, but the locals said a storm was moving in that afternoon. I opted to go for a quick swim in the lake and then take a train on the scenic route to Zurich where I would connect with an overnight sleeper train to Vienna, Austria. As long as I didn't hit any more delays, I would have time and rail-pass days enough to visit Interlaken again between Dresden and Frankfurt. This new-new-new schedule would allow me to be in both of those cities on weekends when my friends had more free time, which was good, but it meant my counter-clockwise loop was quickly turning into a convoluted figure eight.

The overnight train was uneventful, but I didn't sleep terribly well. I got to Vienna a little tired, but in pretty good spirits. I was lucky to find a really nice hostel in Vienna. Even though I arrived hours before I could check-in to my room, they offered me a shower, a place to store my luggage, and discount on breakfast. After I got to my room later that afternoon, I found the hostel was to be clean and full of friendly staff and travelers, including a group of Swedes who I believe are still reading this blog :) .... If you're ever in Vienna, consider Wombats.

The purpose of stopping in Vienna was to reconnect with Chrissi whom I had first met earlier this year in Antigua, Guatemala. I enjoyed the conversations Chrissi and I had in Guatemala about environmentalism and travelling, and the chance to wander around Vienna with a native Austrian was too good to pass up. It was very hot and sunny during my couple days in Austria, near 90F, so Chrissi and I spent the better part of the day doing what the locals do on a hot day: sunbathing and swimming in the canal.

I have trouble saying no to a good bridge-jump. 

I'm afraid I don't have any particularly insightful comments on Austrian culture or cuisine. The one thing that does stick out with me is that as I traveled a bit east from Germany and Switzerland to Austria, I could definitely feel the Eastern influence. I believe Austrians prefer to be thought of as "Central" European, some kind of cultural crossroads - which is definitely true, but the food, dress, and customs that I saw during my short  stay in Vienna reminded me more of what I saw in Russia than Northern Germany.

Well, that's all I have for now. My next post will talk about my time in Poland, Germany (again), Switzerland (again), and possibly Belgium/Holland. We'll see how far lost in the details I get while typing it up.

In the mean-time, if you want to "read ahead" you can look at the maps (complete all of the way back to Anchorage) and photo albums. I've already uploaded all of the photos for all of my stops in Germany, both stops in Switzerland, and of course, Austria. I'm still fighting with getting some of the videos on line, so you might want to check back later (or subscribe using google plus).

.... And to keep you interested, here's a sneak-peak photo from my five-day ferry ride to Alaska. Too bad you'll have to wait though the rest of Europe and Canada before you get to hear that story :)


  1. Wonderful that you could spend some time with Cassie. So now in addition to journals you found from awhile back, you've connected with friends from a "long" time ago ("long" in terms of "student time")! Aunt K

  2. Haven't been reading along the way, however I have saved them all and one day will read "Thomas, the Traveling Soul". So excited to see what your are up to and "hear" your adult voice, it continues to be my pleasure... Tamara