Friday, August 7, 2009

Round the World

Alright, so I'm back and I'll do one last post before I close up shop on the blog. What is it like to go around the world? Well, it feels no different from any other trip of 4 or 5 months in duration. Since almost everywhere I went was new and interesting to me, I had a blast with all of it. My point is this: if you are considering leaving for a trip, make sure to go places you are excited about seeing. Global trends? Ice cream gets better the closer you get to Italy. Diet Coke is easier to find in countries with more obese people. Among younger crowds, the Europeans seem to travel to Asia, Australia, and New Zealand (with India occasionally thrown in) while Australians and Kiwis go just about everywhere except Asia. Of the North Americans, Canadians seem to be everywhere without any sort of trend while Americans are concentrated in Western Europe. Here are some stats about my trip you may or may not find interesting:

Countries: 23 (Fiji, NZ, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic, England, Ireland) Australia, Slovakia, and England were just stop-overs, though.

Average Days per Place: 2.5.

Books Read: 15

Flights: 20
Trains: 16
Long-Distance Buses: 42
Boats: 26

Money Spent: For those who are planning a trip and are considering how much you need, this is for you, $11,000. Although I would keep three things in mind when you are budgeting: 1) Moving at a slower pace and covering less ground is much cheaper, 2) Obviously the places you are going to will greatly affect your budget, depending on how expensive they are, and 3) If you like to go out and enjoy nightlife, you will probably spend around 20-30% more than those who don't. About $2700/month is around the upper-middle of budgets for backpackers because I moved around a lot (around the world in four months is fasted paced) and I went out at night, but I also wasn't in the more expensive countries most of the time.

Here is a higher-resolution map of where I went that I pieced together:

For those who want to hear more of my advice on places to travel or just want to learn a little more about the world, I'm going to start a little travel site as a fun side-project for me, complete with info and pictures from my travels in Central America, South America, and other parts of Europe. So be on the lookout! Details will come.

And as always, feel free to email me with general questions, travel advice, errors in the blog, whatever, I'll be happy to hear from you. Think of something you'd like to see? Let me know that as well.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

County Kerry, Ireland

I met up with my family here in Ireland at the Shannon airport and we headed straight on to Dingle to start our trip in County Kerry. Dingle is one of the many small towns on the West Coast of Ireland, known for Gaelic-speaking people, traditional music, and beautiful scenery. Dingle is actually one of the towns with a good harbor on a little peninsula, called the Dingle Peninsula. We explored the area around Dingle town, pubs and all,
before heading out to Slea Head, the point of the peninsula,
and taking a look at the ancient buildings and ruins left by the Celtic and early Christian people in the area more than a thousand years ago. On the right is our archaeological tour guide, giving us a talk on the history of the stone in the ruin around us. On the left is one of the buildings made entirely of stone (no mortar) which have stood since the time they were built.
After Dingle, we went to Killarney to start our bike trip around the Ring of Kerry, the common name for the next peninsula south of Dingle, the Iveragh Peninsula. The weather for the first half of the trip was unbelievably good for a country that never goes a day without rain. Here is the Glencar Highlands on the first day,
and coast on the next.

After the first two days we had a break day, which my mother, brother, and I used to go to Skellig Michael, a rock-island off the west coast where Puffins and other seabirds nest and a 7th century monastic ruin sits on top. Many of the buildings in the settlement where the monks lived are still standing. They are all built without mortar in the typical beehive hut style that predominates the early architecture in Ireland. Just across from Skellig Michael is Little Skellig (bottom two), home to tens of thousands of Northern Gannets who come here to nest. It is impossible to get on the island but we circled around it to take a look. You'll notice a lot of white dots, each one is a bird. Here are the photos:
The next few days rained but it did stop for long enough to let me have a look at the coast at Daniel O'Connell's House and Staigue Fort, a ring fort built thousands of years ago before Christianity came to Ireland, but nobody can agree on exactly when:

and Killarney National Park with the Muckross House (which is inside the national park) on the right.

Although I spent a few more days in Ireland after leaving County Kerry, there really isn't enough to make another blog post about. So here are some pictures from Doolin, one of the pubs there with local musicians playing for the tourists (a pretty typical sight in Ireland) and the Cliffs of Moyer, a cool seaside cliff but probably not worth the acclaim it gets:

I'd like to thank all my family for supporting my broke self in Ireland for a few weeks, especially my parents. I really had a great time with all the bike riding, pub crawling, music listening, and all the other times in between. Here we all are in Waterville, on the Ring of Kerry.

Ireland is an interesting place nowadays. Americans have been conditioned to love Irish anything and there really is a lot of misconception about the place. To enjoy the place, I think you have to know what to expect going in. The countryside is gorgeous, the stouts are amazing, the music is fun, and there is a lot of history on the island. However, Irish people are generally dismissive of tourists, of which there are far too many (especially Americans), it is incredibly expensive, being one of the most expensive countries in Europe and the exchange rate on the euro is far from favorable, and finding anything truly "traditional" there is practically impossible. Since there isn't really much else to do, all the larger towns and cities have pretty good nightlife.

Beer of Ireland: Ireland is the home of the stout. They sell three major types, Murphy's, Beamish, and, of course, Guinness. They all taste about the same and though I'm not a stout person generally, they are damn good stouts. And, of course, the Guinness is better in Ireland. That statement isn't made without irony, see why, if you don't already know (and interestingly enough, the guy who runs that site has one just for me). There are also a few other types of lesser-known beer widely available in Ireland. One is their lager, Harp, which is mediocre at best and another is Kilkenny, a cream ale, stuck somewhere in the middle ground between Guinness and an Irish Red. Kilkenny is both unique and flavorful, making it probably my favorite beer in Ireland from an "intellectual" approach (meaning that after awhile I just started to order Carlsberg, a good Danish beer) though it isn't available in most bars . There are a few good microbreweries in Dublin, but their beers are not widely available. Stout lovers, this is your heaven. Everyone else... well, don't say I didn't warn you. Grade: B-.
Ice Cream of Ireland: The selection isn't great, the quality is decent, but nothing special and it is always (always!) unduly expensive. Most places on the west coast just have soft serve at the grocery stores and it honestly isn't even great for soft serve. When you can find the scooped ice cream, it's decent, but paying $8 for two scoops dampens the enjoyment. Grade: C-.
While you can take a one day tour of the Ring of Kerry from Cork or Killarney (which I have done in the past), the better way to see Kerry is to go as slow as possible, by bike, leisurely car rides, or walking, all of which are regularly done. It will rain a lot so increasing the time you spend there will increase the chances you have of getting a few sunny days or getting to see most stuff at least once in the sun. If you want to see a lot of small towns and countryside the best option is to rent a car, provided you won't unnecessarily freak out about driving on the left hand side of the road. I flew into Shannon airport on an Aer Lingus flight from London Heathrow ($85, 1.5 hours), before which I left Prague by flying British Airways into London Heathrow ($129, 2 hours). When traveling through London, make sure your flights are in the same airport (there are 4: Heathrow, Luton, Gatwick, and Stansted). Inter-airport connections are expensive, time-consuming, and very much a hassle.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Prague, Czech Republic

Back home, I heard so many raving reviews of Prague that I had expectations of a city where every building was sculpted of marble and magic oozed out of the cracks in the cobblestone walkways. It is a cool city. But how different is it from other European capitals like Budapest, Paris, Madrid, Vienna, etc? The truth is that that it's a little cheaper but the city itself is not that unique. But regardless, I had a great time enjoying the great beer and good times with the fun people I met. Luckily, since I wasn't staying in the center, I found some truly delicious places to eat for cheap right by my hostel. The day I went to town and explored all that Prague had to offer, I just walked past the Powder Tower into the city (shown below at night)

and stopped at a church that I can't figure out the name for but had an amazing interior full of carvings

before hanging out in Old Town Square for a bit. Left is Tyn Church, center is a view of the large open part of the square, and right is a horde of tourists gathered to watch the hourly astronomical clock do its thing. I never watched it, so don't ask me what the big deal is.

Like Krakow and Budapest, there is the Prague Castle on the river which is rather un-castleish with a massive cathedral sitting in the middle of the complex. Above left is a view of the castle complex from the river, above center is a tomb in the cathedral, above right is the cathedral in the castle, below left is a stained glass window in the cathedral, and below right is the gates to the royal section of the castle with some pretty gruesome statues posted there.

The nightlife is quite remarkable, though. Whether you find clubs full of (mostly male) tourists or the legit bars, it's pretty easy to have a good time. And like I mentioned, the beer is amazing and cheap. Below is the biggest club in town, referred to as "Five Stories" because it has five levels of clubs, each with its own music and decor. It looks pretty cool, but it's filled with tourists, has barely passable music on most of the floors, and the drinks are expensive. Though I should say that I did make it to some really good ones in Prague as well, usually led there by the hostel employees.

Here are more pictures of Prague (left is Wenceslas Square, center is the view from Prague Castle of the Castle District, and right is Charles Bridge):

Since I saw all I wanted in Prague and had three other days there, I found some really interesting daytrips to do. One was to Karlstejn, a town dominated by the castle of the same name and once the seat of Emperor Charles IV, who ruled the Holy Roman Empire from there. While it isn't the largest I've seen, it is nonetheless impressive and in great condition. To see the inside, they force you into tours and although I don't like being herded around, it gave a pretty good look at castle life and how Charles IV ruled from there. Center is the town which follows a line along the road up to the castle.

The second trip I did was to Kutná Hora. Once a prosperous silver mining town that had wealth and power to rival Prague, Kutná Hora has since transformed into a sleepy little medieval town complete with cobblestone streets and a large Gothic cathedral. While it's nice enough, I never would have come here but for the ossuary. The place is bizarre, eerie, and one of a kind. Its graveyard became so popular, especially among plague victims, that they started accumulating bones and bones and bones. Now they have the bones of over 40,000 people, arranged in formations from pyramids to coats of arms to chandeliers. It's pretty impressive to see a chandelier made with every bone in the human body. They have little info sheets that this place is supposed to remind us of our eternal life through god and that our bodies are just fleshly vessels, or something like that. It seemed a bit of a stretch, my guess is that some guy who was both creative and incredibly morbid got tired of seeing the bones piled about. Check it out (center below is a view of Kutná Hora):

Beer of Czech Republic: The best in the world. Grade: A+.

Ice Cream of Czech Republic: Big disappointment here, you really can't find much worth eating and they give you horrible little half scoops reminiscent of Hungary and charge you a dollar for each one. Grade: D.
There are two daily direct trains from Krakow to Prague, one at 6:53 and a night train that leaves around nine. It takes 7 hours and the fares change daily, seemingly without cause. It was $82 for me, which I thought was ludicrous but I had no other option at the time, though I think there must be a cheaper way. I stayed at Clown and Bard, a cheaper option with a rowdy and fun clientele ($14/250Kč). To get there from the main train station, go out, turn right, walk through the park until the path dead ends on a street. From there, take any tram on the same side of the street as the park just one stop (or just turn right when you get to the stop, then take your first left, then your first right and follow this road around for a few blocks to Krasova St, this is the "first right" mentioned in the next sentence. Get off and keep walking to the first right. Go uphill two blocks and make a right turn, it is on the right. Walking around the city is the best way to sightsee in Prague. The cathedrals are all free, so go ahead and go in. For a great view of Prague, go to the tower in the Old Town Square, the entrance is in the tourist office the next building over ($5/100Kč normal, $2.50/50czk student). For going anywhere in Czech, check out this site: To get out to Karlstejn, it is pretty straightforward. Trains direct to Karlstejn leave hourly from Prague's main train station ($6/85Kč return, 45 min.) and they'll announce the arrival, plus everyone will get off then. When you leave the train station, you'll see signs pointing to the Hvad; this means castle in Czech. It takes a few minutes to get up to the castle. They only allow entrance as part of a guided tour, of which they offer two types, but one must be booked in advance so for most people, it will be Tour 1 ($13/Kč250 or $8/Kč150 student). No photos are allowed. Getting to Kutna Hora from Prague is likewise no big deal (direct trains every two hours, $5/Kč95 one way, they leave from the main station, Hlavni Nadrazi). About 10 min walk from the train station is the ossuary and then 3km after that is the rest of the town. Honestly, the town isn't that cool, just a nice little place for a stroll and checking out the cathedral, which is rather cool from the outside but rather like every other cathedral inside. Getting to the airport is simple as well: take the green line north to its terminus, Dejvická, then follow the signs that say airport bus to the stop, it is bus 119 and you can get the ticket on the bus for $1.50/Kč30 or Kč26 from somewhere I couldn't find. Terminal 1 and 2, the last two stops are what you want, 1 goes to international and 2 goes to international Schengen countries. If you don't know, no worries, the terminals are connected by a five minute walk.