Saturday, November 29, 2014

Berlin - Round 2 - Day 2

I had made plans with my friends from the night before to meet up near the biggest shopping area in Berlin, Potsdamer Platz, and they said they would help me get my gift buying done, especially help with picking out something for Kayleigh as I find it harder and harder to know what would make a nice gift for her now that she's no longer into all the things she was as a young girl.  It was so interesting to walk into the new shopping malls that exist in what was East Berlin, because they are just like the big malls in America. That didn't really exist back when the wall was up.  Back then there was really only one big shopping store and that was visited by pretty much every girl in school on a weekly basis.  That was one of the biggest changes I noticed the first time I'd gone back to Berlin after the wall came down and it still catches me a little off guard to see it now.  Berlin used to be nothing but little Boutiques and Mom and Pop type stores all over town where you had to do your shopping.  I don't know if the malls make it better, but as a guy, it's sure easier to only have to go one place to find everything you need. I'm not exactly a fan of shopping.

It turned out that having their help made the whole experience of shopping a lot more fun though and we went from store to store looking for things people had asked me to buy for them while I was there.  We took a break for lunch and went to this cool pizza and pasta place that isn't like anything we have back home.  You are giving a smart card and then you stand in lines depending on what you want and it's kind of the Benihana version of Italian food. You tell a chef what you want and then make it right there in front of you using nothing but fresh ingredients.  Including picking spices right off the plant to toss into the mix as they cook your lunch.  After your place your order, you get the item added to your smart card, so you can pick and choose lunch, drinks, soup, dessert, etc until you are done and then you check out and pay on the way out the door.  I thought it was a cool concept and people seemed to really love it.

After lunch it was back on the hunt for gifts including a trip to the Riter Sport chocolate store there.  It's like M&M world in Las Vegas... with every kind of chocolate you can imagine, including flavors and chocolate bars I have never seen in the States.  One really cool thing you can do there is you can also custom make your own chocolate bar.  It's set up kind of like Cold Stone Creamery.... you have items you can pick from and you choose if you want Milk or Dark Chocolate, and then pick three ingredients to add to the bar and they create it for you while you wait.  It was pretty cool so of course I had to make two of them to take home.

Now with all of that done, we just walked around looking for things I could take pictures of and talked. Christmas season is in full bloom right now and we decided to wander over to what most people say is the best Christmas Market in Berlin (Weihnachtsmarkt).  It really was a little more posh than a few of the other ones I'd seen set up already and they sold so much cool stuff in there.  It's really too bad I don't live in Berlin as I would have stocked up on so much great Christmas Stuff.  I can see why everyone loves going every year and adding to their Christmas Decorations, while grabbing food and drinks and listening to live music.

I'd been trying to meet up with two other friends before I left Berlin but hadn't had any luck in getting in touch with either, but luckily while we were sitting having a drink, my friend Bobby saw a photo on Facebook and happened to be nearby with a car and since he knew the two friends I was with, he called one of their cell phones to get in touch with me. Finally!  He happened to have a car with him and said he would come pick me up from the Christmas Market so we could hang out for the rest of the evening and go to a club across town that he thought I'd enjoy.  Along the way he called one of my oldest Friends that still lives in Berlin and we caught him at home and got him to come meet us at the club.  It was a GREAT way to end the trip and I'd have been so bummed to leave Berlin without having gotten to see either of them.

So even though the trip was coming to an end so much faster than I wanted, I couldn't have asked for a better last two days in the city hanging out with friends and sharing lots of laughs and conversation. There were two bands that played that night and they were both pretty good..... when they finished up, I had to say my goodbyes to Roy and then Bobby gave me a ride back to the hotel.  It's still the greatest city I've ever lived in and I'm so lucky to have friends that still live there that make the visits that much better. Until next time Berlin!

Time to re-pack my bags and squeeze in everything somehow, then it's up early for a VERY long trip back home.  Good thing I get to enjoy a 33 hour day tomorrow. It's going to take most of it to get back home.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Berlin - Round 2 - Day 1

Well today was another travel day but this time not nearly as long a trip as I took leaving town.  Total travel time today was just under 6 hours between 3 trains.  The timing was pretty good so that I didn't have to wait more than 20 minutes between any two trains and then taking the ICE trains the the biggest part of the trip, the countryside flew by.  There were large portions of the trip where I looked up and saw we were doing close to 250 km/h which if I'm still doing my math right, it close to 60 mph.  ;-)

It's a beautiful day here today... high clouds and lots of sunshine, but a little on the cold side.  I really can't complain about how lucky I've been with the weather on this trip. It's hard to believe that coming to Europe in November would get me almost perfect fall weather, with the one day of rain and maybe two nights that were a little on the cold side.

The plan tonight when I got to Berlin was to get to my hotel and get checked in as quickly as I could, and then grab my camera gear and head across town to meet a couple of friends for dinner.  I figured after dinner I could take my time working my way back to the hotel and stop and take photos of some of the bigger tourist spots at night, which hopefully a lot fewer people in them that there were back at the beginning of my trip.  We decided to meet in the East part of Berlin and have dinner at a really nice quiet Restaurant.  They started off telling me that we were going to speak German most of the night since I understand most everything W being said... and then I could just answer in English when I couldn't think of the words I needed (which turned out to be a big portion of the time).  It was cool to sit and have them spend most of the night sharing stories in German though and only once in a while having to stop to explain something they said.  The most interesting part of the night came when the subject of the Wall came up.  For some reason I never realized that they were both born and raised in East Berlin during the days of the wall, and their story of what that was like was fascinating to me.  We talked politics, health care, jobs, pretty much a whole range of things that kept the conversation super interesting... just hearing their views of America and Americans was very cool to me.

The conversation was so interesting that We ended up closing the restaurant down, and as we walked tot he train to head our separate ways, found we'd just missed the last train which caused a bit of a dilemma on how I was going to get back to the hotel.  Just about the time we were trying to figure it out, a couple came walking up and needed to head my way ....  we decided to share a cab as they lived about half way back to my hotel... and the guy told me to jump in with them, he'd pay for his part of the trip and then I could pay the taxi the rest of the way.  It was another reminder at just how nice people can really be.  The taxi ride was interesting as he was from Spain and she was from New York which made for interesting stories on the drive.   Once again, it was a great day with an adventure within my adventure.

Tomorrow is my last day in Berlin and it's going to be bittersweet.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Heidelberg - Day 2

I woke up this morning and looked outside and was surprised to see how foggy it was today.  I decided to head out for Heidelberg Castle first thing as it was a pretty nice little walk from the hotel.   One thing about traveling like this is you tend for kind of forget what day of the week it is, must less what date it is... and I'd somehow gotten my days mixed up thinking it was now Monday, until I heard all the Church bells start going off all over the city.

That is one of my favorite childhood memories... waking up to the Church bells at my Grandmother's house.  It's not the same as hearing the bells at maybe one church in town in America...  kind of hard to really describe it until you hear it.

As I walked and had all those memories from my childhood flood through me, I saw that the sun was cutting through the fog so my timing seemed to be perfect with getting up to the Castle.

The last little portion of the walk to the castle was up some fairly steep steps as most castles in Germany are built high up on the hillsides overlooking the city below.  This one was no different. It did give some great glimpses of the town below and makes you try to imagine what life was like back in the day.

Heidelberg Castle itself is mostly ruins now having been destroyed in the 17h and 18th centuries by wars and fires. It's still a very impressive structure, with the main courtyard buildings having been rebuilt over the years.  The castle covers a lot of ground and you can walk around the outside of it without having to pay any kind of fee.  There is a small fee to enter the castle and walk through the courtyard, and to walk through a few of the buildings within.
The view inside the castle is actually very impressive and bigger than it even appears from outside.  You can walk into a few of the buildings here, and through some archways to the back of the castle for a view overlooking the old town below.  By the time I got to that part of the castle though, the fog had moved in again and made the city below virtually impossible to see.

One thing I didn't expect to see where was a place to eat inside the Castle but there is a small and very nice little restaurant inside.  Of course, I had to great lunch there... I mean, how often can you tell friends that you actually ate lunch or dinner inside of an honest to goodness castle?  The room was really nice too.

After eating lunch I walked around the Castle one more time hoping that the fog would break so I could get some better shots of the city below but no such luck.  This looked like it was pretty much hear to stay.

I headed back down the hill and into the old section of the city, walked across the bridge, looked around at the set up for their Winter Fest and then make the long walk back to the hotel.  All in all it was a fun day and another good long walk.  Since there wasn't too much else I wanted to do, I thought I'd make a bit of an early day of it, and go through photos from the day, posting some of my favorites to Facebook.

Tomorrow marks the last leg of my trip...  I'm heading back to Berlin for another 40 hours before finally having to call an end to this trip and heading back home.  I'm going to try to make the most of my last few hours in Berlin and walk and see as much as possible.... so calling it an early night tonight might be a smart move.

Heidelberg - Day 1

Yesterday was just a travel day for me which mostly involved waiting around train stations and sitting on trains all day.  One good thing about it was that I gave my aching feet a bit of a rest and I finally got a chance to go through some photos from my days in Bruges that I hadn't even looked at yet.

The first part of my trip out of Bruges was on one of the high-speed ICE trains that run through Germany.  This things are fast and quiet.... and such a great way to travel.  I think at one point I noticed we were going 168 km/h.    I think that's like 32 miles an hour or something.   ;-)

The nice thing about riding 1st class on the trains here is that you tend to end up with cabins all to yourself on a lot of these trains if you're not traveling during tourist season. That gave me time to spread out a little, turn on some music and work on editing a few photos.  I had a few hours between cities before I would have to change trains so it was good timing.

The only glitch I ran into on this trip was when I changed trains in Cologne, there was some construction going on outside of the train station that had most trains delayed by almost an hour.... but as I found almost everywhere on this trip, people were pretty friendly and I ended up talking with a German girl who was waiting for the same train on her way home from her Grandmother's funeral.  When I first talked to her in my bad German about the delay, she said she really didn't speak English, but about 30 minutes later came down to find me and sat and talked and her English was much better than my German.  It was nice to pass the time talking to someone and eventually the train showed up and I said goodbye as I headed down to the 1st class cars.  No sooner did I sit down, than two "kids" came into my car to sit and at first didn't really say anything but then asked if anyone else was sitting in there... I think I surprised them when they realized I was American as well... they got pretty excited as they didn't speak German. One was here as an  exchange student, and the other was her brother who had just gotten to Germany the day before.  They had a lot of questions about my trip, and what they should see while here... and it was fun to chat with them until they got off at the next stop.  It's probably one of the most fun things about traveling by train in Europe.  You tend to meet all kinds of people from all over the place.

The rest of my trip to Heidelberg was quiet as it was a late train and not busy at all. When the train got into town, I was pleasantly surprised to find the hotel literally outside o the train station doors ... just about 100 yards to the right.  That was good because I was pretty tired after traveling all day.

Okay, I guess I rambled on way too much about the train trip... didn't realize I had that much to say about it.   That's it for now!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bruges - Day 3

I decided to get up a littler earlier today and actually have breakfast for the first time on this entire trip since I didn't really eat dinner the night before.  The woman running the dining room at the hotel is from Australia and kind of gave me a hard time the day before about skipping out on breakfast and reminded me I had already paid for it so I should make sure to come down and eat.  I'm glad I did because I was much hungrier than I realized.  Plus I'd been missing out on lots of great meats and cheeses and breads for breakfast since leaving Berlin.

After breakfast I just took my time getting ready to head out.... loaded my photos from my camera onto the computer and onto a backup hard drive I'd brought with me, and ran through them really quick to see if I had gotten any good photos from the day before.  There are a lot of photos I am sure I'll always like because I was here, but not nearly as many that would make for good "artistic" kind of shots although I do have an idea with some of them that might really make them fit the mood of this city.  I was certainly more in tourist mode the day before and I could see in in my photos.  That's not always a bad thing through.

I decided to start the day by heading over to the museum and checking out the Salvador Dali exhibit even though the only real art by him that I knew was his famous melting clock stuff.  I'd seen some of his other work before but not enough to where I could have picked it out in an art book if it wasn't captioned.  Needless to say, if you've ever seen his paintings, etchings and sculptures before, he is a little out there sexually in his work.  There were some pretty strange and interesting concepts in his work and he had a number of different series that were all pretty cool to see together.  You could really see how his work changed over time and even over the series he would be putting together.  I enjoyed the show a lot, but was disappointed to see that in all the work they had displayed there, the melting clocks were not included.   I was really looking forward to seeing them in person, but maybe some other day.

The Winter Fest started here today and all the little booths were open around the square so I wandered around checking out what they had for sale and enjoying watching all the people that were here today.  The square and streets were a lot busier today for sure... and I'm not sure how much of that had to do with the Christmas Festival starting and how much was just because it as Friday night and the weekend was here.  There were a lot of tourists from England here for the weekend from what I could hear and with the Chunnel now, it's a very easy and cheap trip for them to make.  I was jeaslous thinking about how easy it would be to travel to a new country every weekend now that the trip across the English Channel was about 2 hours now.

After I started to get really cold walking around I thought it would be a good time to jump on the City Bus Tour and take the 45 minute ride around the city to hear what I may have missed and learn some of the history here.  If you've never been to Bruges before, let me just say that this is a tour  you can really skip and not miss anything.  For the money you pay, you can buy a book abound the city and see and learn so much more just walking around.  I was disappointed, but at least I'd warmed up a bit.  I just wandered around pretty aimlessly the rest of the day here, and after looking at my Fitbit realized that my day of leisure still had me walking just over 9 miles.... so much for resting my poor feet.  Since this was my last night in town and I'd seen pretty much everything I wanted to, I headed back to the hotel early to pack my stuff back up since I wanted to try to sleep in tomorrow.  Bruges was very cool and a beautiful old city, but I can see how this is one of those places you would have more fun with if you were with someone special.  There is a romantic feel to the city that you just can't take advantage on by yourself.  LOL

Tomorrow is a travel day ... leaving here and heading to Heidelberg.  I'm going to try to make the best of the day on the train to just relax and catch up on some reading and maybe even watch a movie or two.  It's been weird not watching TV for almost 3 weeks now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bruges - Day 2

My plan when I got up today was to head out fairly early and walk the outer ring canal of the city, taking a look at all the gates that were still in place from the Medieval  Days when the only way in and out of the city was through these gates.  
There is a nice park like area that runs along the canal with nice paths for both walking and biking, and like most of this trip so far, it was a beautiful fall-like day.  As you walk around the old city limits and you look inward, you can almost imagine what life must have been like back then.  It almost has the feel of a city straight out of Game of Thrones, where everything is still cobblestone and you can almost hear the horses and carriages making their way to market.

One thing I hadn't expected to see here were Windmills and as it turns out Bruges has 4 of them along the eastern side of the ring.  That's 3 more Windmills than I saw in Holland while I was there.... and Holland is the country known for them.  Go figure right?

Something else that stood out, is that there wasn't really all that much traffic in the city center, at least not nearly what I would have imagined from the number of buildings and shops here. Traffic wasn't heavy but it was very steady as I began to realized every time I went to take a photo.  As one car / cyclist left the photo another would enter... spaced almost perfectly apart, to the point that I started to wonder if I was on some kind of weird hidden camera show and they were just messing with me to see how long it would take before I would give up waiting and just shoot the photo and move on. LOL

After making my way around the outer ring and checking the maps posted at every tourist attraction I'd seen most of what I could see on the eastern side and then I just began weaving my way back and forth into the city, checking out all the cool churches and buildings I could see.  Some of the streets where pretty narrow and it looked like most of them were one way.  It was almost like walking through a maze which I found a lot of fun, just seeing if I could remember all the twists and turns I was taking as I tried to slowly work my way towards the main square and then back out again in another direction.

It was really interesting to watch the drivers and cyclists doing the same thing and they flew up and down the little alleys.  I funny thing I noticed during the day though, was that the drivers here had a very bad habit of stalling their cars on a regular basis.  I don't think I've ever seen or heard so many cars stall out at stops and then have to b what e restarted.  I wasn't really sure what that was all about?  They all acted like it was a totally normal thing to do though, so I'm thinking they must just use really watered down gas here and the cars just can't idle on it... yeah, that would be my excuse anyway. LOL

All in all, it was just a perfect day for walking and taking in the city, and I began to realize if you only had one day to do it, you long as you didn't also want to take the time to shop and sit in restaurants eating and drinking and people watching.  I'd given myself 2 full days here, and by the end of the day today, I'd seen and taken photos of just about everything I could think of here.

Even though I can't speak the language at all here, when you see things in writing, it's pretty easy to figure out what almost everything says.  It's a weird mixture between German and English and some of it almost looks like it was made up because it's so
close to one of those two with just a little spelling twist.

Okay, enough rambling for today, my feet are actually feeling the miles for the first time on this trip and I think some of that has to do with the cobblestones I walked on for 10+ hours today. I think tomorrow will be a much more laid back day since I'd seen so much today.  There are a few sights I still want to take in, a couple I want to go back and re-shoot, and then I think I might take in a City Bus Tour and go see the Salvador Dali exhibit in the museum here.   Sounds like a pretty mellow day. :)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Bruges - Day 1

Today was a travel day, leaving Amsterdam and heading for Bruges in Belgium. After all the walking I'd been doing in Amsterdam, it was nice to have an excuse to kick my feet up for a few hours and just relax, as the plan was to do a lot more walking in Bruges as well.

I got in to the station after pretty much everything there had shut down so it took a few minutes to look around outside the train station before figuring how which way I had to go to get to my hotel.  No Taxi's were around but I knew it wasn't too far of a walk so away I went, dragging my luggage down narrow cobblestone roads with no one around.... was weird to see the city had pretty much closed up by 8:30 at night, but kind of cool to see all the old buildings with no traffic coming or going.

I found the hotel pretty easy and once again, found myself looking at getting my luggage up a narrow and fairly steep staircase, no elevators of course. The room was really nice though, and maybe one of the nicest of my trip so far. Of course, it did have a few quirks... like the toilet is literally in a closet. Here are some pics just for fun.

Since I'd been sitting most of the day and it was still early, I grabbed my camera and a map from the front desk and decided to see what I could tonight, hopefully getting some good shots of the cool old buildings here, without too many people around.
I headed for main square wanting to see the Bell Tower first and foremost and to try to find the one iconic spot where the most famous photos of Bruges are
taken.  I figured if nothing else, I could find my way there so that I could get back there nice and easy tomorrow when I had the whole day to explore and shoot.

Here are a few more shots from my wanderings tonight...  This is a great city and I love how old and medieval it all feels. I'm really looking forward to getting out again tomorrow to see as much of the city as I could fit in


Friday, November 21, 2014

Amsterdam - Day 4

Today is my last full day in Amsterdam and I feel as though I've seen as much of the canal areas of the city as I can without just re-tracing my steps over and over again, so I decided I was going to walk to a point away from the center area to a cool bridge called the Python Bridge that was also on my list of must sees while I was here.

I'd seen photos of it before my trip and it was just cool enough and unique enough that I wanted to see it with my own eyes, and walk across it a
couple of times.  So I did some quick research on Google to get the address and took off.  The only bad thing about heading here was that there wasn't going to be much to see on the way there or back, and it was going to take up a few hours.... but I was okay with that.
I thought I could wander around on the way back and see if I could find some more modern architecture that would yield itself to some cool photos.

I finally made it to the Python Bridge and it was pretty cool looking, and in an area I never would have imagined from the photos I'd seen before.  It sat at the end of a canal that was bordered by apartment buildings on both sides and was much more residential than I expected.  It would be a very cool area to live.

I just remembered that I forgot to mention one kind of interesting thing I found while walking the canals yesterday, was that I found a number of very cool looking little drawbridges that I'd never seen the likes of before.
It only makes sense that bigger boats need a way to get through there as well. The interesting thing was the number of different kinds of bridges, some draw bridge like at home, some small bridges that twist open, and some that almost looked like they were build from a Lego kit or something and could be opened by hand by anyone with the need. I'm sure that's not how they work, but they sure were small.

Something else I forgot to mention was that on Sunday I also found this cool bar near my hotel that showed NFL football, and they just so happened to be showing the Seahawks game!  So to get my
fix of Football, I headed there just before the game started, got something to drink and then had a couple of Americans sit at my table with me.  Turns out they were from Seattle!  What a small
world.  They only stayed until half-time and had to get back to their hotel since they were here for work unlike me.  During the second half of the game I overheard 3 British kids talking about football and trying to figure out some of the rules and they called me over to join them to ask for help.  It was a great time sitting there and hearing what they thought about the game, comparing it to Rugby, talking about violence outside of the game and players being suspended and
hearing their take on it all.  People on the road tend to be so friendly and I'd talked to more than my fair share of really nice people while here for sure.

So that was mainly my day today.  I decided I wanted something a little different for dinner after all that walking and hit an Irish bar around the corner from my hotel and had Cottage Pie for
dinner.  It hit the spot for sure  :)

Amsterdam - Day 3

So I woke up to a very nice but chilly Fall day out there and decided that before I do anything else, I needed to get the number one must see item marked off my list before I let too much more time go by.  I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time in 7th grade I think and it was one of those books you read, and you just never forget.  I'd tried to picture what her life must have been like during those years of hiding and always tried to picture what the house was like that they were in.When I decided to add Amsterdam to my list of cities to visit on this trip, I just knew I had to make sure I visited the Anne Frank House, if I did nothing else. There is a museum built next to the house now (well, not really even a house but a office building), that looked kind of deceiving when I first walked up, but the really long line let me know I found the right address.

Even though the line went around the block, there was no way I was skipping this, so I just got in line and waited.  It was funny but to keep everyone entertained, they actually provide free WiFi in line so you can surf the Internet on your phone while you wait.  I used the time to catch up on Facebook and browse all the photos everyone has been posting from their trips.  The wait wasn't too bad really, maybe 45 minutes and then it was into the building. The first thing that took me by surprise was the size of the rooms and the building itself. I guess I'd always pictured something smaller every time I read the book.

You slowly work your way through each of the rooms in the office building, with notes and photos on the walls here and there telling you what each office space was and who sat where and it explains their part in helping the Frank family hide out. And then you get to the movable bookcase which was almost exactly as I'd imagined, even if the rest of the house wasn't.  Needless to say, after having just been to Auschwitz, it hit me even harder finally visiting here, knowing the fear they must have felt and the horror that was ahead of them.

There were a couple of places in the house that were sadder than others, but I won't spoil it for anyone that plans to visit on their own one day.  Let me just say, it's worth the visit and the wait in line.

I left there feeling a bit melancholy again and decided the best way to clear my head was to just walk and take photos as much as possible the rest of the day.  Amsterdam is made up of a number of canals that are circular and run in parallel to each other so I started walking one of the outer canals and walked it end to end, before moving in one canal closer to the city center, and walking back the other way.... working my way back and forth until I made it back to my hotel.  It took me close to 6 or 7 hours but was a lot of fun seeing as much as possible, and I could feel my artistic side kind of wake up as the day wore on.

Amsterdam has the feeling of a city that painters must love and I decided to process a few of my photos with that kind of look in mind.  Some of the better ones I've posted to Facebook already, and since I think the only people reading this are also friends on Facebook, I'll put a couple of others here.... even though they aren't nearly as good.

All in all, it was a great day, long, introspective, and motivating as well. I think I walked 15 miles and it was time to hit the sack!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Amsterdam - Day 1 and 2

Well the plan was to spend a full day in Berlin after getting back from Poland, but along the way I found out one of the Brats and her cousin / BFF were going to be in Amsterdam while I was traveling to Poland, and I'd just miss them if I didn't head to Amsterdam Sunday. We talked about me coming a day early so that they could show me around and I really wanted to hang out with them at least one night in Amsterdam before they had to leave. My train got in around 6:00 pm and they met me at the train station. We went and stowed my bag away and then hit the streets, walking around the
Museum district and hearing all the stories of what they'd seen and did the 4 days they were there. I also heard the story about how a pick pocket tried to still her Passport and money and how she caught him in the act, demanded he give it all back, and the kid did... before running away.  I was impressed!

After a lot of walking around, we found a cool little restaurant for some dinner and ate and talked for a couple of hours.  It was nice to have a night to wind down after all the traveling in the last two days, and was great to be able to laugh again after the prison camp visits of yesterday.  They had to be at the train semi-early so we called it
an early night but I told them I would head to the station with them in the morning and help get their bags on the train and say our goodbyes there.

Day 2 in Amsterdam was a really wet one.  It was the first rain of the entire trip so I couldn't complain. I mean the weather had been fantastic and almost perfect up until that point.  Not bad for November!  After saying goodbye at the train station, I was no on the section of my trip where I was all alone.  I had no schedule to keep, no places to be and decided that since it was raining I would use this opportunity to just walk and see as much of the city as I could since I couldn't really take too many photos today.

It was a good time to explore and try to find interesting things to photograph over the next couple of days. I walked from one end of the old part of the city to the other, looking in shops, watching people, almost being run over by the crazy cyclists who are everywhere in this city.  I know there are cities in America where they claim to have a lot of bike riders, but there isn't a city anywhere that has as many as they do in Amsterdam!
Bikes were everywhere... people riding them, parked and chained up on every bridge, sidewalk, building and even in their own parking garages.  It was something else to watch the Dutch flying up and down every street on their bikes... turning in and out of their own miniature version of rush hour, no crashing into each other or pedestrians I could see.  It was impressive to watch!

So my first full day in Amsterdam was mostly just a lot of walking and getting rained on.  The only other interesting part of the day was the walk through the Red Light District.  It's one of those places you always hear about and I think every tourist in town walks through there one some point in time on their trip.  It was much more fun watching the tourists walking around than anything... There were people of every age group, nationality, couples, groups of friends ... and they all mostly laughed and giggled as they walked up and down the streets looking at the girls in the window.

Oh, before I forget about the cyclists, one kind of crazy thing I saw over and over again, were women in full dresses and heals, women with 1-2 kids on the bike, people texting while riding, people lugging large items like flat panel TVs, pretty much anything we see people doing in cars in the States... they do here on their bikes.

Well that's it for the recap on my first day and a half in Amsterdam.  The weather is supposed to be nicer tomorrow so I'm hoping to get out and shoot photos all day!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Poland - Day 4

The alarm went off WAY too early but I was on a tight schedule to get down in time for the taxi so there was no hitting snooze today.  I made it over to the hotel in time for a little breakfast before our long day ahead...

I'd read and watched many stories about the concentration camps over the years, and about man's inhumanity to man, but yet, knowing I was going to visit the place were those atrocities actually happened kind of put a damper on the mood that morning.  As I climbed onto the bus, I realized I wasn't the only one feeling that way.

I guess I'd never really seen photos or videos of the actual camp over the years, but only photos of the people effected by them.... because when we first got there and went inside, the first thing that caught my eye was the size of the buildings there, and the fact they were all brick and almost looked like military buildings from places we had been stationed over the years.  In fact, they looked a lot like the last building I worked at as a contractor on Fort Lewis.  It just caught me off guard but once the tour started and we were walked through the buildings, shows some of the evidence left behind, the enormity of the horror that happened there really hit home.

There were rooms filled with children's shoes, women's hair, family suitcases, and just all kinds of other household items that were seen fit to reuse after those families were murdered.  Knowing that what we were looking at was just a drop in the bucket...

I can't even being to put into words the horror and evil that happened there. It was heartbreaking and once again hammered home the point that we has humans, can't forget the past, in order to someday hope that it is never repeated. This is a hard day to write
anything even remotely humorous... and the second camp was must more of the same, only showing that as the Nazi machine got rolling
that horror grew even more terrible.  There are plenty of books, photos, movies... information out there for those of you that might to read up more on all of it again....  but I just ask that we never forget how evil man can be ... and hopefully we can all do our little part to help treat each other better and make this world a better place.... even if it's just one of us at a time.

The bus ride back to Berlin was a long one.... and mostly quiet.... it didn't have the same energy as the trip down but as we got closer to home, there were some fun stories and laughs begin shared again.  I think this touched everyone, and I don't think it is a day any of us will forget.

That's it for now.... I'm only on hour 3 of my train ride to Amsterdam, but suddenly I'm thinking I need to watch a movie or something to shut the brain down for a while. I will post more from Amsterdam in the next day or two.  :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Poland - Day 3

This morning was kind of nice, in that we were getting a slightly later start than I had since getting to Europe.  I think we were supposed to meet at the bus by 9:00am which meant I actually got to sleep in until 7:30!

We started off the day with a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. I'd read up a little on the salt mine portion of this trip before leaving home, so I was kind of excited to finally get to see this place. The photos made it look very cool and I'd never been in a salt mine before so it had me really curious as to how the whole process worked and what the actual mine would look like.  If you've ever gone on a tour of any kind of mine cave system before, you have a general idea of what the tour was like, with maybe a few exceptions on this one.

I won't bore you with a step by step account of the tour, but will say that a few things stood out to me... and hopefully I have some photos that can show some of it off.  First off, this place was huge... and I mean huge with a capital E.

 Second and most impressive thing about this place, was that there were carvings, statues and cathedrals build out of Salt, by miners working in the mine there, that would rival any statue created by Michelangelo in my humble opinion.  Some of it was amazing to look at....

The tour was about a 3km walk underground if I remember right, with some chambers that were more than big enough to hold good sized buildings and homes. Even with all that we saw, we were told it was less than 1% of the actually mine which was almost hard to imagine even while standing down there looking at it all.

The 3rd and maybe freakiest thing, but coolest at the same time, was the elevator used to get us all up and out of there at the end of the tour.  We'd gone a long way down using nothing but stairs but most people would never be able to go back up the way we came down without some serious struggling. SO, they have an ingenious elevator about the size of a coat closet that actually 4 stories in it.  They took some of us up some stairs slid open this door that exposed a TINY room behind it and then attempted to squeeze 8 people into that opening.  If you've ever seen a clown car, you can picture what this must have looked like in reverse.  After greasing everyone one up they slide that door closed and the elevator drops about 6 feet where they do the process again with another layer of people. That's when we realized there were 4 levels to this thing....  once loaded, you shoot up the mine at a pretty good pace before finally being released back into the open air and being allowed to resume your previous human shape.  On the top side, they were set up to let all 4 floors of the elevator out at the same time, and my guess is they had to do that to keep people from freaking out in the two sections that would have had to wait to go last each time.

After the mine adventure, it was back to the hotel and time to get out shooting photos with my tripod.

I'd decided to skip out on dinner since I'd eaten too much at lunch inside the Salt Mine... but while wandering around taking pictures I ran across a few Brats that just happened to be directly outside of the place we were supposed to have dinner.  I have NO idea how I stumbled across that place but thought maybe it was a sign that I was meant to eat something after all.

I had put on some serious miles in walking today so I joined them for dinner and was happy I did afterward.  Turns out I was much hungrier than I thought.  After dinner, and number of us went hunting for a cool little Vodka bar that was recommended by a long-time friend and fellow Berlin Brat that had just spend some time in Krakow the month before.  We actually found the place and even though I'm not a Vodka drinker, I was talked into trying a couple of different shots and they were VERY good!

We laughed a lot and then I decided to walk back to the group's hotel where we were just going to all sit on the back patio and drink and laugh a little more since no one was ready to call it a night. Somewhere during all the laughing and joking around, we were all talking about how the WiFi was so crazy and hard to get working right there, and I mentioned something about shooting a photo with everyone trying to get a WiFi signal all at once... and next thing you know, the photo shoot was on!

It was getting late and we had a SUPER early morning ahead of us.... so everyone headed off to bed and I started back to my hotel. But as seems to happen to me so often when I travel, I wanted to check out side streets and neighborhoods on my way back, so I went up and down every side street I could find, even passing my hotel at one point and didn't stop walking for almost 2 hours before deciding I should try to get some sleep before having to get up at 5:00am.  Yikes... was it really already 3:00am?
Yeppers!  LOL

Tomorrow is one of those days I was both looking forward to and dreading at the same time.  We were going to visit Aushwitz I and II before heading back to Berlin.  It was going to be a long and emotional day .... it was time to say good night.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Poland - Day 2

Day 2 Krakow

Day 2 of the Poland trip started off with a bit of bad news... just before boarding the bus for Krakow, I was told that there was a screw up with my hotel reservation and the hotel that the group was staying at didn't have a room for me. They had arranged for a taxi to take me to another hotel and I would be staying there along with 3 others on our trip. The news really wasn't all that big of a deal, but not the way you want to start out your morning. Never having been there, I wasn't sure what would count as being "close by". We arrived at the hotel and then was told that since we were going on a tour in about 90 minutes, I should just leave my bag there in a secure back room, and then could go check in to my hotel after the tour and before dinner.

The tour was your typical tour ... we were taken to the main square, into a huge and beautiful church there, and then around the plaza, told some history of the city, and then hiked up to the castle that overlooks the city. I was really enjoying the walk and the weather and just getting to look around.... but it gets really dark here by 4:30 this time of year and I didn't have my tripod with me so I knew most of my shots from this excursion were going to be pretty crappy at best and more than likely blurry.

The good thing is I knew we would have about 4 free hours to do whatever we wanted on Day 3 and I planned on heading back to the castle as soon as our free time started, tripod at hand! The tour included a couple of places I didn't even realize were in Krakow, the most famous being the "Love Bridge", where the whole idea of couples declaring their love for each other on a lock, and placing them on a bridge got started.

I don't know how you feel about the whole idea, but I have to admit, the sheer number of locks on the bridge was pretty amazing to me. I didn't see many places left where anyone could squeeze a lock in there. Some locks just had names and dates written on them with a sharpie, but others went all out and had engraved plaques on the lock itself. I do have to admit the skeptical side of my brain came to life and instantly wondered how many of these couples were even still together, and had the thought that they should be made to come back and cut their lock off if they break up. If nothing else, but to make room for new loves.

So tour over, we headed back for the hotel with 90 minutes to spare before having to leave for dinner, and once again, I was told that it really wasn't enough time to get over to the other hotel and get us checked in before we had to leave for dinner... I started to wonder just how close was this supposedly "close by" hotel after all.

And yes... for those of you who are already asking the question... we are REALLY in Krakow today. LOL

Once again, dinner consisted of pork and potatoes, the staple of life in Germany and obviously Poland as well. :)

After dinner it was finally time to get over to the other hotel ... the taxi came, 3 of us loaded our bags in the cab, we pulled away from the curb, took two rights, crossed over maybe 3 roads and turned into the driveway of our hotel.... which must have been all of 2 - 3 hundred yards away. LOL All I could think was I could have easily walked my stuff over the minute we got to town had I knows.... and not spent all day waiting around to feel settled in for the 2 nights.

The hotel looked really nice from outside, the staff at the desk was super friendly and helpful, but I could tell right away the room I was given wasn't as nice as the group hotel. I was more than okay with it though as I had a bed to sleep on and a bathroom with everything you need. I figured I wouldn't be here any longer than I needed for sleep anyway so it was really just more about me having a funny story to tell my friends when I got home. It felt like the whole thing was being run by the Keystone Cops... and reminded me that for all their advances in technology in the last 10 years, Poland is still a country where many of the old ways haven't died yet. Things are handled by many multiple people attempting to get one thing done, and that can sometimes lead to misunderstandings or as in this case, someone dropping the ball and then no one knowing where the problem happened.

It had been a long day so I called it quits and just stayed in and got a little sleep ... thinking tomorrow being the last night, I'd get out and shoot as much as possible before and after dinner since that was our first and only free time on this trip.

Tomorrow.... it's off to the salt mine.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

European Vacation Pulp Fiction Style

1st Poland Stop Wroclaw

Well, I'm 9 days into my trip and my plans of trying to blog something every night or two kind of went out the window pretty quick once I got checked into the hotel in Berlin. WiFi is available here, but it's pretty hit and miss most of the time. Some times I could only connect with my phone and others, only with the laptop... and I think there was a day I actually was able to get both to connect, but Berlin was such a whirlwind of activities, friends, exploring, visiting that the blogging idea was shelved until I knew I'd be travelling alone with lots of time on my hands. So.... I'm leaving Berlin this morning and heading to Amsterdam and since i have a good 6 hours on the train, I figured now might be a good time to do some catching up. I'm going to skip out on the Berlin part of the trip for now.... as there are so many things going through my head and my heart about that portion of the trip and it's going to take me a while to even process it.... so I thought I would start off with the Poland adventure as it is still fresh in my mind and was just that... a bit of an adventure.

So in the style of Pulp Fiction... here is Week 2 of my 3 week trip.

Day 1 of the Poland Trip

First off, I was under the impression we were heading to Warsaw on our first day so when the tour guide kept pronouncing the upcoming city differently than I expected, I just chalked it up to the fact that Americans tend to call many European cities but names other than those used over here. I spent much of the day thinking we were in Warsaw and even posted a few photos stating that fact on Facebook.... only to find out later that we really were in another town all together called Wrocław. Goes to show that sleep deprivation does eventually catch up to you and cause your brain to malfunction a bit... or to keep you from being able to put two and two together for longer than usual. LOL

We got to the hotel at around 2:00 pm if I remember right, and then there was a pretty long wait while the poor front desk people scrambled to get everyone checked in and the rooms and keys assigned. We all had a little free time before the first bus tour was supposed to start so I just decided to head out and explore the area around the hotel a little on my own. We were just off of one of the major roads in the city so I only went down a block or two before cutting down some side streets and that is where I ran across this cool little statue, without a plaque or any kind of hint at who she was, I had an instant flashback to Pipi Longstockings. I wasn't sure if she was anyone friends in the states would recognize but those of us growing up in Europe should certainly have known her ... so I posted a photo to Facebook and it literately only took a couple of minutes before my fellow Brats started chiming in asking if that was her. Kind of made me smile to know I wasn't the only one that watched that show on TV as a kid.

I went around a few more corners and found a really nice park where the Fall colors were still hanging on .... just barely maybe, but it was so much more Fall than I got to see in Washington this year I just had to shoot a few photo of it. It's really too bad this trip hadn't come a couple of weeks earlier as I bet the park looked amazing then.

The free time was almost up so it was back to the hotel to board the bus and get the guided tour. If I remember right they took just down the road where we were then dropped off and given about a 2 hour walking tour around the main city square. Most of the cities in Europe have them, and they are almost always surrounded by great looking buildings and churches. I'll have to go through my photos later and maybe update this with photos from that walking part of the tour.

After that we all kind of took our own route back to the hotel so I did a little more exploring before we all met back up and were taking to this nice restaurant back inside the square. When dinner came, a few of us were excited to see that it appeared we were finaly being served something other than pork and potatoes for dinner.... but alas.... what looked like prime rib turnout out in fact, to be pork... but it was so very yummy I don't think anyone complained this time around. :)

After dinner we were taken back to the hotel and then had the rest of the night free. I think most people were tired and went straight to bed but I wanted to go back out and shoot some more. I figured I may never get here again so I was going to see as much as I could and figured I could just sleep on the bus as needed on the way to Krakow tomorrow. So that was Poland - Day 1 in a nutshell. Saw some great sights, had a great dinner, and made new friends on the bus ride there. Now I'm just hoping I was also able to get some good photos to go along with the rest of the day. We'll see.

Oh, and one other thing I almost mentioned and that I thought was actually pretty cool.... when I first checked into my room, it appeared the power didn't work, but I found out you have to put your key card into a slot in the wall, which then activates the power in your room. If you try to leave your room with the card in that slot, the door won't lock, so you can't accidentally lock your key in your room, but you also can't leave your room and leave every light and appliance on in there. When you think about how much money that must save the hotel each year.... I can't understand why I haven't seen this being done in America yet. Anyway... I thought that was very cool. :)

If I haven't bored you to tears yet.... and you want to read a little more, wait for the post about Day 2. I actually did have a bit of an adventure on Day 2, but one I would have been happy to have not had to go through. LOL

I'll try to set it up to post these automatically a day or so apart and when I can get to a spot and really go through my photos maybe come back and post a few from each day. Right now, I'm an hour into my train ride to Amsterdam, and it's looking like I got really lucky and will have my first class cabin all to myself ... at least until this train pulls into Hanover. It's kind of nice!