Es España

My first stop in Spain was Seville.  I was super excited to go during the week leading up to Easter because Semana Santa (Holy Week) is a very big deal in Spain (a picture of one of the parades actually made the front page of the Wall Street Journal).  The week was a much bigger deal than I was expecting.  Miniature displays of the Nazarenos (members of religious brotherhoods) were all over the windows of clothing stores and bakeries.  What is so intriguing about these displays (and the parades they walk in) is what they are wearing… To a lot of people in the west, it would be compared to the costumes of the Ku Klux Klan.  Racism is obviously not what this religious ceremony is promoting, but rather the conical hats are symbolic of the penitent approach to heaven.  Either way it was very weird at first to see them walking around.  The parades are quite long both in length and duration; it took about an hour and a half for them to pass my stationary location and some have routes that have them walking for 12 hours.  There are generally two very ornate floats that are the most exciting portion to watch.  The first float is Jesus dying and the second is a despondent Mary who is crying over the torture and death of her son.  Some people in the audience get quite emotional over this and start crying.  The true symbolism behind the parades is lost on the children because for them it has become an event of begging for candy from the people walking.

The cold and rainy weather that has been following me for over a month has once again come to Spain with me.   While the south of Spain is supposed to be in the 80s and sunny in April; it was raining and about 55 degrees while I was there.  Because of the rain, the parades were delayed and many were completely canceled.  Of course because “Es España” (this is Spain), there were no announcements or information being provided (even in Spanish) regarding the cancellations to the gigantic crowds gathered outside of the churches for the beginning of the parades, just a herd of people walking away not knowing what was actually happening.   The mass chaos created in the streets all over Seville also provided a glimpse into the real Spain as well.  Instead of having well defined walkways so that people can get to where they need to go (to their hostels because it is 2 am and they are tired, for example), it took over two hours for what should have been a five minute walk…

I went to a Flamenco show and decided that I would probably be pretty good at it for two main reasons.  First, is that despite the constant reminders to always smile that I got in my elementary school dance lessons, in the flamenco you’re allowed to have a pained grimace on your face, which apparently I have naturally even if I’m not in a bad mood…  Also there is no touching even if you dance with a  partner which goes well with my personal bubble space I find to be necessary.

My next stop in Spain was Cordoba.  The only real draw there was the Mezquita.  This is an absolutely beautiful cathedral that used to be a mosque.  It was originally built as a mosque by the Moors.  After the Spanish Reconquista it was converted into a Roman Catholic Church.  Because the building is considered one of the beautiful buildings in Islamic architecture, Muslims are trying to convert it back to Islam.  So far they have been unsuccessful.

Granada is home to Alhambra, one of the finalists of the New 7 Wonders.  Unfortunately my habit of not planning anything in advance that got developed in India, Egypt, and Morocco caught up to me.  Being the week of Semana Santa, I should have known better than to expect to book tickets the day before I wanted to go.   When I finally got around to checking, tickets to Alhambra were booked solid for the next three weeks.  Fortunately with some internet research I figured out that if I bought the “Granada city pass”, it included the coveted ticket.  This of course didn’t come without a cost.  It was double the price, but also included admission to the cathedrals, some monasteries, and the science center.  So basically I ended up being suckered into going to a bunch of stuff I would have ordinarily not paid for. But since I was stuck paying the extra $15, I begrudgingly went to the attractions.  At least it reinforced my stance that I’m tired of paying to go into churches (which all look the same to be now because I have seen so many in my travel life by now).    The science center was sort of interesting, the funniest part was the “workplace safety” exhibit.  It reminded me of the episode of The Office where Michael is trying to make office work seem as dangerous as work in the warehouse.

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Extended Layover in France…

In order to fly from Athens to Morocco, it was cheaper to have a layover in some European airline hub than to fly directly.  So I chose Paris in order to go to Normandy.  When I first was in Paris several years ago, a combination of poor planning and a French train strike resulted in an ill-fated attempt at seeing the famous WWII beaches.  Attempt number two was much more successful.

I took a two hour train from Paris to Caen, where the Caen Memorial Museum is located.  It is a spectacular museum!  I spent about five hours there and felt very rushed through parts of it in order to make my train back to Paris.  After visiting Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem), which focused on the human suffering side of WWII, just over a week before, it was interesting to learn more about the tactical and historical aspects.

I also took a tour of the actual beaches where the Allied Forces landed.  Omaha Beach is now a summer resort area, though in March it is pretty desolate subtracting out the Normandy tour groups.  I asked the guide what veterans of D-Day thought of kids playing where they witnessed so many of their comrades perish (4,850 GI’s died on D-Day on “Bloody Omaha”).  She said that their typical response is that they were fighting for freedom, so they are happy to see families enjoying the rewards of their sacrifices.

After 15 years of wanting to be a member of the “Irish family” of the University of Notre Dame, now that I finally am “Irish”, I couldn’t go to Paris and not revisit the Cathedral of Notre Dame (on St. Patrick’s Day coincidentally).  Though it has no official affiliation to the university, and was really only made famous because of Quasimodo and Victor Hugo, it doesn’t detract from the splendor of the cathedral.  I of course had to have my picture taken in front of it, wearing my newly acquired ND apparel…

Side note: after traveling through many developing countries, which inherently are more challenging, I had forgotten how easy and pleasant it is to travel through Europe.  There are street signs, people are far more considerate, and garbage cans line the sidewalks (which translates into far less rubbish strewn about)!  However, these “luxuries” don’t come without a price.  And that price is quite obviously the associated price tag.  A two hour train ride in France cost me over $45, while train going the same distance in Morocco costs less than $4…

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Crossing into Enemy Territory, the Land of Sparta – Athens, Greece

Coming to Athens I expected a lot of Spartan stuff, and of course as a Wolverine this makes me sad.  Additionally, I poorly timed this trip to coincide with the sting of the Big Ten Tournament…  At least there is a relief sculpture of a fallen Spartan which made me smile.

Obviously the main attraction of Athens is the Acropolis.  The Parthenon is the most well-known part of this archeological site and is probably what you picture when you think of Athens.  Renovation and reconstruction efforts are under way, which unfortunately means cranes and scaffolding are clouding all of my pretty pictures.  Short architectural lesson time…  There is a slight bulge of the columns of the Parthenon, which gives the impression that they are bending under the weight of the roof.  And according to my guide book: “the secret of the harmony of the Parthenon is that there is a not a straight line in the design”.   I don’t get it – probably why I’m an engineer and not an architect…

The Erechtheion is in much better condition and is considered the most holy site of the Acropolis.  This is where the goddess Athena planted her olive tree.  Apparently there was a contest for the naming of the city between Poseidon and Athena.   Poseidon struck his trident in the ground and a spring gushed forth.  The citizens were not impressed because it was salt water, like the waters of the sea that he ruled.  Athena planted a seed in the ground that grew into an olive tree.   She won.

Another obviously iconic image of Greece is the Olympics.  The first “Olympics” were known as the festival of Panathenaea.  Every four years the ancient Athenians celebrated the Megala (great) Panathenaea which included horse racing, athletic contests, competitions in music and other activities.  Originally, in 330 BC, a stadium was made of wood.  However, the Panathenaikon Stadium, which stands today, was the venue of the first modern Olympic Games in modern history (1896).  It is pretty spectacular to see a stadium made of white marble.  It still has nothing one the Big House though; it only holds 60,000 people…

The Temple of Olympian Zeus is basically just columns.   Apparently 16 of the original 104 columns have been preserved and sits right next to a tennis club.  The nearby Hadrian’s Arch was constructed in 131 AD in honor of the Emperor Hadrian.  The arch sits only about 100 feet from a major roadway.  It’s weird to be walking down the road and then boom, there is a 2000 year old monument.  I think my favorite archeological “find” was a really old looking church (no description) right in the middle of a major shopping street.  Walking along there is a church, and then right behind it is an H&M.

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After leaving Germany, we briefly ventured to three Austrian cities: Innsbruck, Graz, and Vienna via the ever reliable train system. 

Innsbruck is situated along the Alps and used this advantage to host both the ’64 and ’76 winter Olympics.  The ski jump built for the occasion, Bergisel, is now used as a tourist attraction (trap) where if you’re too lazy to hike up the mountain, you can pay to visit the tower and peer out over the city.  It is a pretty crazy looking contraption.  Even though I used to be pretty good at the ski jump on the Winter Olympics game on a commodore computer like 15 years ago, I can’t imagine how you begin training in real life to voluntarily jump off that thing on skis.  Matt and I are too poor to take the easy route, so we did a short hike up on our own, but still got a panoramic view above the impressive city of a mere 110,000 people. 

Graz has a unique sense of architecture.  A renowned architectural “gem” of the city, known to locals as ‘the friendly alien’, reminds me more of a giant cow udder.  Lonely Planet compares it to a “mutant bladder”.  Another structure, an artificial island in the River Mur in the center of the city holds an amphitheater and café, and is shaped like a giant seashell…  There is little in the city to denote Arnold Schwarzenegger’s origins. 

The next stop of Vienna provided a much more classic dose of architecture, even though a lot of palaces, museums, etc. are starting to look very similar.  There are only so many buildings of comparable styles that I can see in a short time span and still be amused.  The same goes for art and natural history museums.  They did have this pretty cool program set up though, similar to Ann Arbor’s Top of the Park, which they play movies on a giant screen in front of their (beautiful) parliament building and numerous restaurants set up temporary tents and peddle their food.  Unfortunately, for yours truly, not being culturally sophisticated enough to appreciate classical music movies about Mozart, etc. I wasn’t really keen on the schedule.

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We left comfortable Western Europe in pursuit of Eastern European flavor (no, not like in the movie Hostel) and away from the dreadful euro.  Budapest, Hungary was a simple four hour train ride from Vienna.  The impressive Castle Hill overlooks the city and gives a pretty spectacular view of the city.

The baths are a long time Hungarian tradition.  A lot of them have separate sections or even days for men and women.  Matt and I went to the most popular one; it turns out it’s basically just a public pool with massages and hot tubs available.  This public pool however was housed in the most amazing building though – never have I seen a pool you can actually swim in, in such a great building.  You know when you’re little and you swim around your friends’ pool in a usually unsuccessful attempt to create a whirlpool… well, the coolest part of this pool was an actual ring shaped structure in one of the pools with jets that did all the work for you.  You literally got pushed by the jets in a circle! (No I wasn’t the oldest one enjoying this)

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Brasov, Romania is home to Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle.  Even if Vlad Tepes (the real-life Dracula) didn’t actually ever live there, they still very much play up that myth with crazy amounts of vampire paraphernalia available and people walking around like it’s Halloween in masks and black robes.  The castle itself was rather unimpressive and not nearly as imposing as you would expect; no moat with a rickety wooden bridge a thousand feet high or even fire breathing dragons.  It is pretty much just a moderate sized house with some spires and courtyards. 

The number of stray dogs was a little disconcerting; (especially because of all the shots I got for this trip, the rabies series wasn’t included) so many poor dogs wandering the streets looking for the elusive scrap of food.   

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Freiburg, Stuttgart, and Rothenburg

This one time in college, I wanted to go to Freiburg to study a semester abroad.  I got into the program, passed the German test (I don’t know how), went to a few classes for the 1 credit course to prepare me to go, and then bailed.  I figured it would be a great experience, but it would set me back one whole year in college due to all the sequence classes I was going to take, that is, if I didn’t take a class in the fall, which was a requirement for a winter class, I’d have to wait one year.  Anyway, after visiting Freiburg, I don’t regret my decision.  Sure, it was a nice place, great scenery, small town, within the “Schwarzwald”, but Germany in the last 3 months of the year probably is not a great time to travel. 

After we checked in, a Bavarian, complete with lederhosen and accordion, joined us in our room.  He was followed by one of the staff, a German.  They proceeded to speak to each other in English. Apparently, Bavarians speak such a different dialect that no one else in Germany can understand them.  From what we understand, the rest of Germany thinks Bavaria is a “country of its own”.

Amazingly, almost everyone in Freiburg (and the rest of Germany, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands) cruises around in bicycles.  Anybody know where we can find this in America?? 

There wasn’t much to do in Freiburg except enjoy the scenery.  It is a fairly hilly area of Germany, coated with trees, and has buildings spotted all over the valleys.  Climbing to the top of the Schlossberg spire and getting a view of the city was the highlight of Freiburg.

After Freiburg, we made our way to Stuttgart.  Home of Daimler-Benz.  There are actually a few signs leftover that say DaimlerChrysler”.  Daimler has installed a state-of-the-art history museum of its company on its campus in Stuttgart.  It was one of the best museums I have been to.  The audio guides used wi-fi sensors to detect where you were in the museum and would activate when you walked into a new room.  And if you wanted more information on a specific car or whatever, you pushed this little button, and it knew exactly where you are.  The audio guide wasn’t what made this place (although it was pretty sweet), it was the fact that it started at the very beginning, showed how both Daimler and Benz companies struggled in the early 1900s, how and what the Mercedes tag did for the company, how they made it through 2 wars, then recovered after every Daimler plant was destroyed in WWII, and then the “Merger of Equals”, and also the future of automobiles and Daimler. All this jam packed in an eight story building shaped like a helix.  Pretty impressive. 

Also in Stuttgart, we got an extensive private guided tour of the city from one of Jill’s former water polo players that was an exchange student; a knowledgeable guy who taught us the history of the city.  

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a small medieval walled city, was one of the coolest cities we’ve been to so far.  We saw brochures in the train station for a Christmas store, and Jill was getting worried that we made four train changes to go to a city she could’ve gone to 1 hour north of Troy, Michigan called Frankenmuth.  Thankfully, the city was nothing like Frankenmuth.  We stayed in a pension, above a gift shop on a cobble stone street.  You could walk perimeter of the city on the wall next to the ramparts, and view the city from above. Everything was so crammed in.  It is almost stereotypical Germany (excluding the Bavarian stereotypes).  There isn’t a whole lot to do here, except walk around and enjoy the city. Eat some currywurst, and these things called “Schneeballen” or snowballs that are very similar to elephant ears that you’d get at a carnival.

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Dresden, Hamburg, Köln

After we left Berlin, we spent 6 days in 4 cities throughout Germany.

Matt in DresdenFrom what I remebered in German class, East Germany (in 1998) was still living in the ’60s, kind of like Cuba, and many of the buildings had not been repaired since WWII.  Fortunately for Dresden, this was not true.  It has been rebuilt and to us, looked no different to any of the Western German cities that would follow.  When we were in New Zealand, we met some Germans who mentioned that most young people were fleeing East Germany to West Germany for a higher paying job and a higher standard of living.  As unfortante as this is, from what we could tell, East Germany seems to be headed in the right direction.  Germany is at the forefront of not only supplying loads of cash to East Germany, but also to the weaker countries of the European Union.

Massive statue of Otto von BismarckIn Hamburg, we went to Ballinstadt.  In the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, Hamburg was the world’s leading exporter of Homo sapiens (not only Germans, but mostly Polish under Russian oppression).  Ballinstadt (actually the person running the place) was where these people would go before headed to the New World.  Ballinstadt now is a museum that showed how people lived as they waited to go to the New World, explained the types of people, their origins, and what it took to leave Europe to the New World.  As a side bonus, you could use the resources for free while you were there.


Matt in front of the Rhein and Cathedral in Koln

Köln boasts the largest Cathedral in Germany.  After seeing St. Peters in the Vatican a few years ago, cathedrals really don’t impress me anymore.  Other than that, Köln is pretty much a missable city.



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Das alles ist Berlin

So who knew trains could go onto ferry boats?  So that is how we got to Germany from Copenhagen.  We made our way to Berlin after entering Germany.  Apparently Germany is very trusting when it comes to S-Bahn usage.  S-Bahn is the above ground urban railway system.  You can just jump on without going through a turn-style and in effect never have to purchase a ticket.  Of course, we didn’t do this, we were able to use our Eurail passes for free S-Bahn all throughout Germany. 

Anyhoo, Berlin.  We stayed in East Berlin very close to the longest remaining portion of the Berlin Wall.  This however, is basically the only remnants left of Soviet occupation (that we could see anyway).  Outside of this area, the wall or where it used to be anyway is symbolized with brick pavers along its entire perimeter.  There has been so much construction that it looks as modern as any major US city.  We were expecting big concrete lifeless buildings, but we saw modern buildings with modern architecture. 

One of the best things about East Berlin was the prices, which along with the rest of Eastern Germany is apparently still trying to catch up to the economic powerhouse of Western Germany.  We could get Doner Kebaps and pizzas for 2 Euros.  Anywhere else in Western Germany is almost double that. 

Outside of our budget crisis (OK not really, but Europe is expensive), Berlin is a fascinating city: Tons of museums, tons of history in the streets from Brandenburg the principality to Prussia to Otto von Bismarck’s and Kaiser Wilhelm’s unified German Reich to the Third Reich to behind the Iron Curtain to modern and free Berlin – You get it all.  We ended up going to the German Historical Museum, which apparently is pretty new, and encompasses German history from about 500 B.C. or so.  We spent the majority of the day there learning about the aforementioned societies of Germany.  We also hit up the main tourist spots like Checkpoint Charlie, the East/West Berlin checkpoint during Soviet Occupation, Babelplatz, the area of the infamous ‘30s book burning, and Brandenburg Gate, where Reagan demanded to Gorbachev to tear down the wall.  

Back to the budget crisis, our hostel we stayed at was running a promotion for Americans only called “ThxAmerica”. This meant that we paid US dollars instead of Euros, same number, switch the currency sign.  We immediately booked a few more nights in Berlin and our stays in Dresden and Hamburg with the same company to take advantage of what amounts to a 60% savings.  This allowed us to catch up from the “extravagant spending” in Scandinavia, London, and apparently Tanzania, which somehow cost us tons of money.  We still don’t know why our hostel was thanking America.

By the way, currywurst is the best, which is basically a bratwurst with a savory ketchup type sauce with sprinkled curry powder on top.  Yum yum.  And where are the Doner Kebap stands in the US, or at least in Michigan?  So good. But then again, nothing tops Qdoba. 

After 5 days in Berlin, we decided to move on to Dresden.

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After leaving gorgeous but expensive Sweden we landed in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is probably more expensive and less gorgeous.  Walking out of the central station you look upon the Tivoli Park walls, where you can see the some of the rides rise above them. This park has been the most popular tourist attraction in Copenhagen since basically the US Civil War.  Walter Elias Disney even came here before he built Disneyland in Anaheim to get ideas about what a theme park should really be.  Although Disney totally outdid Tivoli, it was still interesting to walk around the grounds, but not even dare going on the rides as they set you back about $4-12 per ride.  

According to Hostelworld, our hostel was supposed to be a “15 minute walk from Central Station”.  Yea right!  More like 40 minutes.  Jill was yelling at me the whole time for screwing up the booking as we’re carrying 30 kilos on our back and front.  It is high season right now and we booked late.  It was either that hostel for $45 per person per night with 2 beds in a room, or a bed in a room with 66 total beds for $35 to be a little closer, what would Brian Boitano have done?  

We only stayed in Denmark for 2 nights, mostly for budgetary reasons.  The tourist office had about a 6 mile walking tour or so hitting up all the major spots. Of which includes the Little Mermaid statue.  Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen story (news to me), this was a hot spot for tourists, mostly popularized by the Disney movie, I would have to assume.  The changing of the guard seemed to be less disciplined than the UK or Sweden.  The guards were laughing and asking each other what they needed to do next. 

Oh my god the bugs!  They were everywhere, little gnats flying everywhere all over the city.  We had to peel them off our faces and brush them off our clothes so frequently. 

All in all, we didn’t experience Sweden and Denmark that much, but we definitely recommend if you could only go to one, go to Sweden.  No, I’m not saying this to get brownie points from Applied Value, the Swedish/American company I used to work for.

On to the fatherland!

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As soon as we left Nairobi and landed in London at 5:30 am we were officially homeless.  We didn’t have hostels booked because of a lack of internet and unconfirmed flights, which was not a good situation to be in when Wimbledon is in full swing and Hyde Park is hosting Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday party.  Every single hostel we could possibly find was fully booked through the weekend and the cheapest hotel the travel desk at the airport could find us was outside the realms of the underground and was still $150 a night.  Then Matt came up with a brilliant idea: use his Marriott points and stay for free!   We certainly didn’t need a Marriot though, in comparison to east African camping, pretty much any hostel with a bed and a shower would have seemed so luxurious.  So we wandered into the Marriot lobby, in our complete refugee-looking status, for our two night stay in opulence.  After two nights his points were used up and it was back to life in the backpacker style of cheap hostels. 

Our indulgences didn’t stop at the Marriot though.  We were told about this great store in London called Primark, it was everything they described and so much more.  We really “splurged” buying new white socks (something I hadn’t seen since Cape Town six weeks ago) and unstained new t-shirts that weren’t stretched horribly out of shape from the African women hand-washing them in river water.

Being in East Africa, where the Lion King takes place, references to the movie were quite abundant. Everything from Hakuna Matata t-shirts, to finding “Pride Rock” in the Serengeti, to the sing-a-longs to the soundtrack on the truck brought up the Disney movie.  Everyone on the tour said that the theater version is so good, so when it was playing in London, we couldn’t resist.  It was really good, even with the British accents we weren’t accustomed to. 

We went on a day tour out to see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the city of Oxford.  Windsor Castle was impressive, but really what else would you expect from the Royal Family?  Stonehenge was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as in seeing it once is more than enough.  The stones are impressive when put into perspective on how they got there, but a lot of the mystery and intrigue is lost in the presentation.  Wandering around the circular site surrounded by chain link fences with an audio guide doesn’t seem to do it justice.  The city of Oxford was cool to wander around in and quite picturesque with all of the university buildings.  The tour guide was extremely good, pointing out interesting tidbits along the way; such as the city where the original British version of The Office took place (Slough).  He also explained why the British drive on the left side of the road: all knights held their swords in their right hands, thus driving on the left allowed them to defend against would-be attackers.  The US drives on the right side of the road for no other reason than defiance of Britain.

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After being in New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and England for a total of more than four months, which all drive on the left side of the road, looking right before crossing the street finally became instinctual.  Enter Stockholm and right hand driving.  When we first entered New Zealand it was simple, I look one way and immediately remember that it’s wrong and look the other way.   I was now so lost on which side to look.  I had been trained my entire life to look one way, spent the previous four months the other way – I couldn’t tell which was which anymore.  A few honks later, I was back on track. 

Using the pound in London, I thought we had already experienced the pinnacle of expensive exchange rates – how wrong we were.  Enter the Swedish krona.  Using the ever reliable Big Mac index, the Swedish near socialist government has accomplished an $12 Big Mac meal.  It is really depressing when you can’t even afford to eat at McDonalds. 

Apparently our sense of style isn’t nearly developed enough for Stockholm night life.  Trying to meet up with a colleague of Matt’s at an outdoor bar, even our “best” clothes (we only get a choice of about 6 shirts, if they’re all clean) got rejected by the bouncer.  In our defense though, basically every local person wandering around Stockholm probably just came from a photo shoot for a J Crew catalogue.   

Other than the expense of the city, it was fabulous!  The landscape along the water was postcard perfect.  The pure number of daylight hours was also amazing.  Being so far north, the sun finally started to set around 10:30pm (this picture was taken around 11pm), even though it never got completely dark.  It was completely different than the camping schedule I was on before that; it got dark around 6pm and I was in bed around 8:30, 9:30 if it was a “late” night. 

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