Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Actually two clocks.
     The first stop on our tour was the celestial clock. In addition to being a very cool piece of machinery, the story behind it is fascinating. The guy who originally designed it was blinded by the city council after he finished so that he couldn't build another clock in any other city. The designer was quite expectedly distraught over this, so he jumped into the mechanism of the clock - committing suicide and damaging the clock at the same time. About as an appropriate revenge as possible; it took decades to repair it and it still doesn’t run quite right. Nevertheless, it remains a really cool piece. The clock tells time in a number of different ways: the Celtic system, the Roman system, astrologically, and by names. The "names" system is really interesting: there are fourth hundred names on a wheel and every day a hand points at a different name. If the hand is pointing at your name that day, then it's your “name day” and you get to celebrate. Totally random, but a great excuse for a party. Every hour a skeleton rings a bell and the 12 apostles rotate through two doors above the clock. Nothing spectacular, until you consider that it’s been doing this every hour for hundreds of years using nothing but gears and gravity. Then it becomes pretty spectacular.

A statue in honor of Mozart.
Also a great place to nap.
     After the clock we started walking towards New Town, which (you guessed right) is newer than Old Town. Our first stop was Wenceslas Square, which is the largest square in the Czech Republic. At one end is the main building of the National Museum, with a huge picture of Vaclav Havel hanging on the front. He’s looking really good too! Next, we weaved our way to the theater where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni - apparently he loved how appreciative the Prague audiences were so much that he premiered a number of his pieces in the city. Next door to the theatre is Charles University, the oldest university in Eastern. It's actually the 18th oddest university in the world, but the Czechs like to be the first, so they found a category that suits.  Our next stop was the Jewish quarter of the city. Built right next to the river, the former ghetto was extremely prone to flooding. Eventually the river was brought under control, but it still occasionally floods (as it did in 2002). Located within the quarter are a number of synagogues, including the oldest synagogue in Europe, the Spanish Synagogue. There is also an Old Synagogue and an Old New Synagogue – just to make things a bit more complicated. Next to one of the old synagogues sits the community cemetery. Since the community was confined to such a small area, they only had one cemetery to bury their dead. As a result, whenever the cemetery filled up they just added a new layer of dirt and started again. There are now 12 layers and over 20,000 bodies buried in an area about the size of a basketball court. We wrapped up the tour at the concert hall right next to the Jewish quarter and grabbed a quick lunch across the bridge.
So much stained glass.
     After lunch a few of us scaled a large hill, intent on visiting the castle sitting upon it . Located on the west side of the river, the location has been continuously occupied since the 9th century. However, major construction only began on the castle complex during the 12th and 13th centuries. The complex stretches over several dozen acres and feels like a city apart, walled off and perched atop the hill. It also currently serves as the residence of the president of the republic, so history and politics continue to mix in exciting, essay-worthy ways. At the center of the complex is the Cathedral of St. Vitus, the patron saint of the Czech region. The cathedral itself is absolutely stunning. With towering stained glass in a number of different styles and a huge central altar, it definitely makes a point about royal power. The walls are dotted with smaller chapels, including one that held a film crew taking some B-roll for a documentary about something.

The window is somewhere up there.
After the cathedral we headed over to the old palace, where the Defenestrations of Prague took places (it seems like the Czechs really like to throw people out of windows). There we got to see the actual window where the Second Defenestration of Prague - the one that started the 30 Years War - took place. I could totally see why it was considered miraculous that the men who were defenestrated survived; it is not a short fall. We finished up our tour of the castle with a fried potato on a stick and a traditional Czech pastry, trdelník. Pronounced like turtle neck, it's a cylinder of sweet dough that is coated in a glaze. It can then be rolled in any number of things – coconut, cinnamon, even Nutella. It's heavenly. That night the whole bunch had dinner together – twelve of us in total. The restaurant we got reservations at was located in the cellar, so there was more exposed brick and arched ceilings to appreciate. Czech cuisine, like Irish, leans heavily to the meat and potatoes, which I appreciated to no end. After dinner we headed out to grab a drink and try to meet up with a friend's high school friends who are studying in Prague. We didn’t end up finding said friend, but we did end up at the same bar at the night before. So, obviously, I played another game of pinball.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Running Late

I’m slowly trying to catch up with all of my travel posts. This one is only about two weeks late. 

     By now, we are getting used to the typical Ryanair flight, cramped but on time. It got us into the Prague airport alive and well, which is really all one can ask for. We had about half an hour before our friends got in from Brussels, so we took advantage of the break to change out our currency. We found that €100 gets you over 2500 Czech crowns. (The mental math required to do the conversion - €1 to 25 crowns – isn’t difficult, but takes just enough time to really slow down decision making.) Having met up with our friends, we headed into the city. The bus was easy enough to navigate, but I messed up the directions after we got off at our first stop. Instead of putting us on the subway like I was supposed to, I put us on a tram… We figured that mistake out soon enough, but had to go back to the place where our bus let us off to pick up the right train. At that point I handed off navigation duties to someone else and everything was going well. But as we got off the train, we were stopped by a pair of ticket inspectors. No big deal, we thought. After all, we had purchased our tickets and everything. Except...we were supposed to validate them when we got on the bus. Which we didn't know and hadn't done...we tried the ‘clueless tourist’ defense, but they weren't having any of it and fined us anyway. Not the most auspicious beginning to the trip. We immediately validated our tickets after that.

     When we finally got to the hostel, it was well past dinnertime. We checked in and dropped our stuff in the giant 16-person room we're staying in and immediately went out in search of food. We walked across the Charles Bridge (absolutely gorgeous when it is all lit up) into old town Prague and found a nice restaurant for dinner. The food was delicious and surprisingly well priced – a welcome break after Switzerland. After dinner we stopped into TGI Friday to watch the RM-Liverpool game. The drink special was some type of strawberry mixed drink that was very fruity and very delicious! I can now say my first trip to TGIF was in Prague, although I’m not sure exactly what kind of stigma that carries with it. We returned to the hostel just as the rest of our group was preparing to head out. They were going to a cave bar, which sounded pretty cool, so we decided to tag along. In the end it wasn’t actually a cave, but rather a collection of old cellars that had been turned into a bar. Still very cool: exposed brick, low lighting, vaulted ceilings, nooks and pinball machines tucked in corners. Best moment of the night was definitely when I scored over five million points on pinball.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


We have the exact same one
at home.
     We decided to make the most of our few hours in Munich by mixing aimless strolling through the street with intense museum time. We started out down the main shopping street (unlike Zurich these shops were actually open) on our way to the main market. The shops are already full of Christmas stuff! It was so cool to see so many ornaments and so much Christmas paraphernalia, a lot of which reminded me of stuff from home. Apparently my parents got all of their Christmas supplies in Central Europe. We stopped in to one of the stores, which was full of steins, nutcrackers, glass ornaments, and chalices. You could get a €2,000 horn to drink out of…I was really tempted. Then we traipsed down to the main market. It was pretty early in the morning and I was still overwhelmed by the amount of food. It was everywhere: pretzels, fruit, bratwurst, and beer. We decided to grab food after our museum visit – a reward for a morning of cultural appreciation.
The chapel, with period lighting installed.
     After only a minimal struggle with the map, we made our way to the Residence Museum and Treasury. The museum is housed in the former residence of the ruling family of Bavaria, which was vacated in 1918 when the Bavarian Republic was declared. Severely damaged during WWII, when they rebuilt it was turned into a museum…about the residence. It's basically just a lot of old, pretty rooms with lots of art and fancy chairs. There is a free audio tour provided; an impeccably pronounced guide accompanied by music a bit too grand for the occasion. When we got to the chapel, for example, the clip is introduced by a solid 45 seconds of Gregorian chant. We get it – we’re in a church. The chapel was still my favourite part. It had been completely destroyed by bombing during WWII and it was restored without any of the original gilding or painting. All that is left is an imposing neo-Romanesque building with lots of exposed brick. It has been converted into a performance space, with Source 4s everywhere, so it was all my favourite things (churches, bricks, theatrical lighting) rolled into one.
     Feeling thoroughly cultured, we headed back towards the market for our well-deserved reward. On our way we ran across this gorgeous church and decided to stop in because there is sort of a standing policy that ‘We visit cool churches because Mike likes them’ (a policy I fully endorse). This one was shaped like a huge, stubby cross with balconies on three sides and the altar on the fourth. One balcony was taken up entirely with an immense, ornate organ. The acoustics: stunning. Might have sung a bit to try that out… There was also this very interesting art instillation that you could only see through cut-outs in the floor. It evoked a tree and was definitely trying to make a point about something, but I couldn't understand the German on the sign to actually figure out what that was. 

The flock in flight.
     After a bit of an adventure through some narrow streets, we got back to the market. At the entrance to the market was another church, so obviously I poked my head in. Inside, hundreds of paper birds filled the space above the pews. With the light spilling in from the windows, it almost looked like they were actually flying. It was such a beautiful sight that the whole group of us sat down for a few minutes to take it all in. We were pretty hungry though, so our contemplation was brief. Outside the church, we made a beeline for some pretzels, which were perfect. Crunchy on the outside, but soft inside with just the right amount of salt. They were a spiritual experience on par with the flock in the church. I got a bratwurst for lunch and it was similarly delicious. Nor do the Germans skimp on the buns, which are more like large hunks of bread than any attempt at an actual bun. After lunch we went back to the hostel, grabbed our stuff, and headed out for the airport.

     Airport security outside the US is so relaxed by comparison. We were never asked to produce ID; they just glanced at our tickets and waved us through the metal detector. I didn’t have to take of my shoes and the padlock in my backpack got me none of its usual stares. The wait for the plane was very relaxing because Lufthansa provides free hot beverages in their waiting area! (Free!!!) I availed myself of not one, but two hot chocolates while we waited. I took advantage of the second flight (our first, from Munich to Frankfurt, lasted only 30 minutes) to work on my Latin essay that was unfortunately due the day after we got back. Arriving back to Dublin around 10:00 pm, passports well stamped from the trip, I returned to campus to finish my essay and fall fast asleep. First ‘Eurotrip’ complete.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Public transport is so colorful.
     Zurich, being in Switzerland, is surrounded by mountains. And when one is in Switzerland, generally you’re expected to climb said mountains. Not wanting to disappoint on such a central cultural experience, we woke up early on Sunday and set off to catch a train to Uetliberg, the closest mountain to the city. The train runs right up the side of the mountain and lets off a ten-minute walk from the peak. We took a leisurely stroll through the woods and eventually made our way to the summit. The view from the top was absolutely stunning, if a bit misty. In one direction, Zurich and the lake spread out before us. In the other direction, rolling hills were dotted with little villages. A few of use braved the climb up to the observation platform, which offered an even better view.
Birds everywhere.
     Our two goals when we returned to the city were to acquire food and a Swiss watch for one of our friends. As we started walking down the main road from the train station, the first shop we came to was closed. So we went to the next one – also closed. As was every store on the street. Apparently Zurich takes the day of rest very seriously; not a single store was open on the entire street. It gave us the opportunity for some great window-shopping, but the number of closed chocolate shops was singularly disappointing. The street ends at the shore of the lake, where we consoled ourselves with a beautiful view of the swans gliding across the lake. We walked over to the opera house across the bridge and checked out the richly decorated lobby. (Sneaking into theatre lobbies has quickly become a motif of this trip.) We were more successful in acquiring food than watches. Part of the group split off for fondue, while a friend and I went to get some hotdogs. The place we ended up had been recommended by a friend back home (whose family lived in Zurich for two years) as one of his favorite places to eat. Their hotdogs come in hollowed out baguette with ketchup squirted down the hole – in my opinion, the ideal way to serve it. After lunch, we stopped by the church I had photographed the night before. Unfortunately, it was closed early for a private concert, but we got some beautiful pictures of the exterior.

     A quick stop back at the hostel to grab our bags and then we were off to the bus station for our bus to Munich. This ride was uneventful – nothing could top the band of German guys from the first bus. We got into Munich late and walked through a light drizzle to our hostel. The bar on the first floor was hoping (and playing a great selection of early 2000s music), so we hung out there for a little bit before turning in for the night.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Most Interesting Bus Ride

      We had a few hours on Saturday morning before our bus to Zurich and having failed to eat a crepe on the first day, we went in search of some for breakfast. In the end, we found a place directly opposite the cathedral. Eating a crepe in an outdoor café in a medieval square across from a gothic cathedral – check! Unfortunately, crepes only last so long. With still a bit of time left, we leisurely strolled down a side street. What do we find, but a street market! So I got to cross another thing off the list: buy and eat a homemade French baguette.

     We managed to successfully navigate public transportation and made our way to the bus stop. As the bus was getting underway, the driver began giving the safety instructions in German. As we were riding a German bus, this was not a complete surprise. Suddenly a guy in his late-twenties leapt up from his seat and moved up to the front of the bus. The driver seemingly thought nothing of this and handed him the microphone she had been using for announcements. He proceeded to offer a surprisingly humorous translation of the driver’s instructions. Whenever he was at a loss for a particular word, the group of 10 or so other guys sitting in the middle of the bus (who I assumed he was traveling with) would shout at him until he figured it out. The only instruction he had issue with was the one about using the facilities. Not knowing the proper bathroom idiom, he eventually settled on, “The toilet is for small business only.” (I’ll leave it to you to figure out what that one means.) The rest of the ride proved to be just as amusing as his translation. The group he was traveling with made ample use of the beer on sale in the front of the bus and had a jolly time for the entirety of the trip – occasionally even breaking out into song.
I see something - I must climb it.
     Having changed buses at Freiberg, leaving our German friends behind, the remainder of the journey had been without incident. We came into Zurich in the early evening, the road sloping in from the mountains while the city opened up before us. The divide between the country and the city is pretty stark. In one moment the road is surrounded by farmland; in the next, by towering hotels. The bus dropped us by the train station, which was a bit of a walk from our hostel. We stopped into a neighboring Starbucks to double-check our directions before heading out. It was there we discovered just how expensive Switzerland was going to be. (A motif that would continue for the rest of the weekend.) We traipsed our way to the correct part of town and only managed to get lost once! Our hostel was located above a Spaghetti Factory – the name explains everything – with a four-story walk up to reception. Once we sorted everything out and found our two friends who arrived earlier in the day, we realized just how hungry we all were. After a fairly in-depth exploration of our options, we settled on authentic Swiss Chinese food. Nothing had ever tasted better.

Searching for a bar, finding a great
photo shoot. 
      The night was still quite young and one of our friends had found a bar he wanted to try, so we ventured out in search of it. The stroll through the city at night was beautiful. A light mist diffused the lights along the river and on the churches, giving everything the look of an impressionist painting. We enjoyed many different views of the city that night as we searched for this bar. Every time we arrived where the map told us it should be, we found nothing resembling a bar. Eventually, starting to get wet from the mist-turned-rain, we settled for a second choice. This bar, which we found much more quickly, hosts a different artist’s work every month. The only catch: the art must be erotically themed. October was featuring a set of wonderfully rendered sketches. Unfortunately, that bar was rather full. In the end, we settled for a bar with far less interesting wall dressing.

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Basel in early morning.
    Traveling, at least this semester, means traveling on a budget and that usually means sleeping in hostels. In a Basel, a city somehow devoid of conveniently placed hostels, the three of us shared a triple room in a budget hotel instead. European hotels generally offer a wider selection of room options, so a triple actually cost the same as splitting a double would have cost. But the triple had a bunk bed, so it was the infinitely more fun option! I got the top bunk, while the other two shared the double bunk below. There wasn't nearly enough time to enjoy our room, however, as we had to be on a train less than six hours after checking in. When the morning came we were awoken by one friend's barking dog alarm (she swears it's the only thing that will wake her up) and groggily headed out to catch our train.

     Arriving at the station, we immediately ran into a cluster of kiosks for buying tickets. How lucky, we thought, there is even an option for English. We hit the button, excited, only to find our hopes dashed. There was some English - the banner welcoming us had indeed been translated - but the remainder of the instructions were still in German. Since none of us read German particularly well, we headed off in search of a ticket counter. The woman behind the desk was infinitely more helpful than the machine had been and we soon found ourselves aboard the correct train and on our way to Strasbourg. I fell asleep almost immediately, but I was told later we enjoyed a stunning trip through fog-filled valleys. I came to a few minutes before we pulled into the station at Strasbourg with a two-hour nap under my belt, ready to face the day.

     Our friend met us in the station and took us to a very cute French cafe for breakfast. The French and Irish have a very different understanding of breakfast. An Irish breakfast contains almost nothing that hasn't been fried and usually includes at least two different meats. Our breakfast that morning was a crescent, a chocolate-filled pastry, orange juice, hot chocolate, and yogurt. Equally good and equally filling. Very happy after all the pastries, we headed to our friend's apartment to drop off our things. She is doing a home-stay this semester, so we got to meet her 'sister' when we stopped in. Unburdened, we set off to explore the city. 
Flying buttresses flying?
     Strasbourg sits in the border between France and Germany in a region that was disputed for centuries. As such, it has a rich mix of German and French influences. The National Theatre, for example, is housed in a former German palace. Follow our obligatory "theatre kids standing in front of a theatre" picture, we walked into the medieval part of the city. The medieval quarter is dominated by the imposing gothic cathedral on the main square. Towering more than 225 feet above the square and fashioned out of rich burgundy stone, it is truly an amazing sight. We spent a good amount of time exploring the interior. The stained glass along the naive is full of red glass, a sign of the immense expense involved in building the cathedral. (Red glass is the most expensive color of glass to produce, according to our glassblowing friend.) In the front of the cathedral, just off the altar, sits a huge celestial clock. Not only does it tell the time, but it also gives the position of every planet (even Pluto) in their orbit around the sun. After we finished exploring the inside, we really wanted to explore the top! The cathedral has a large viewing platform beneath the bell tower and there was no way we were going to miss the chance to go up. The 330 step climb takes you up right next to the flying buttresses - so close you can even see the stone puppy carved into one of them. The view from the top was simply stunning. You can see the EU Parliament buildings on the far side of the city, as well as Germany across the river.
The river: pre-wine.
     Having enjoyed some traditional French milkshakes, none of us felt the need for much lunch, so we simply wandered through the city. We strolled past the park that the city had built for Josephine, Napoleon's consort. Apparently she only visited once and never set foot in it again, despite a return visit to the city a few years later. A brief stroll through the EU district finished out our tour. We transferred our stuff from apartment to hostel and then headed out for dinner. We went to a place that specializes in Alsatian pizza. Effectively white pizza on flat bread, there were a bewildering array of options that somehow all seemed to involve bacon. They're the perfect food after a long day of walking, especially when matched with sparkling lemonade (or lemonade-beer for the more adventurous among us). By the time we finished up our meal, it wasn't even 7:30 pm. Not content to end our night so early, but certainly not prepared or qualified to go clubbing in France, we hatched a plan. First stop was as supermarket to pick up a bottle of wine. (The difference between Ireland and France is astounding: a good, moderately priced bottle in Dublin runs about €14, while in Strasbourg the same quality bottle goes sells for €4). Very pleased with that difference, we bought a bottle to split and found a spot by the river to sit and drink. We could not think of a more French way to end the day. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

First Flight

Last weekend was my first trip outside of Ireland. A few friends and I were going to visit our friend who is studying abroad in Strasbourg, France. After that we would hit Zurich and Munich before returning to Dublin in time for our Tuesday classes. In preparation for our departure, I drew up an itinerary for the trip which included all of our travel and sleeping arrangements, as well as a number of suggested activities for each cityIn addition, I printed out all of my tickets, boarding passes, and hostel reservations. I even printed a second copy of my plane ticket, just in case. Those of us traveling together had mapped out our route to the airport the night before. I felt prepared. But in all this preparation, I forgot two very crucial things: socks and underwear. Since we were only traveling for the weekend and our budget airline of choice charges a preposterous amount of money to check bags, I was obviously going to pack light. One pairs of pants and a shirt or two can easily last a few days, but changing out socks and underwear daily is a must for me. Besides generally not wanting to feel gross, it is common courtesy to one’s fellow travellers. But when I went to pack my bag the morning of our departure, I came across an empty drawer – not a sock to be seen. Only a hurried trip to the campus laundry saved me from sure disaster. 

Boarding on the tarmac.
Just another perk!
     Our flight off the island was on RyanAir - everyone's favorite low-cost, no-frills airline. RyanAir is wonderful because it will fly you all over Europe for less money than a bus ticket. You just need to read the fine print very carefully. Checked baggage costs extra, obviously. But so does checking in at the airport (a €100 fee). Forgot to print your boarding pass, that will be another €70. All this makes for a rather adventurous time at the airport. That our whole group managed to make it through the airport together, intact, and on-time to the gate on our first trip is both a testament to our preparation and a lot of dumb luck. The flight itself was more pleasant than expected. No broken lights, ragged carpet, cracked windows. (The horror stories about budget airlines unfounded at least in this instance). Everything was clean and fairly comfortable. The seats lacked a pouch on the back (no barf bags unfortunately), but it did give the benefit of extra knee room. With no complimentary inflight beverages, I could nap without worrying about losing out on my free Diet Coke.

     We arrived into the airport at Basel around 11:00 pm, exactly on time - a welcome change from flying in the US. Since the Basel airport straddles the borders of Switzerland, Germany, and France we had to pass through customs. After the most perfunctory passport examination in history, we gathered assembled by baggage claim and celebrated our first successful flight with cookies. We then had a choice to make: go to the left and exit to France/Germany or exit to the right to Switzerland. I had never been offered an option of exit country before - it was quite exciting. We mulled our choice for a moment, but ultimately picked Switzerland because, well, that was where our hotel was. The bus from the airport to the city centre went directly to our hotel - or so we thought. We hopped off and hurried to the hotel, wanting to get as much sleep as possible before our 6:00 am train to Strasbourg. Arriving at reception, puzzled looks greeted us when we tried to check in. Could we have made reservations for the ring night, under a different name, on a different credit card? No. Turns out there are two hotels with the exact same name on opposite sides of the train station. We had booked our room at the other one... A brisk walk back the way we came brought us to the right hotel and we settled in for a brief nap before our early morning departure. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Too Much Nutella

Other people out for a walk.
My parents have come to town to visit (well, visit and play golf), so I’ve spent the last two days showing them around Dublin. It has been a great opportunity to test my knowledge of the city and guide them around the place I’ve been calling home the past few months. But it has also been a wonderful opportunity to do some touristing. Since I’m actually living in the city for a few months, and occasionally even going to classes here, I have tried to avoid tourist spots as much as possible. Instead, I have done my best (with varying degrees of success) to find lesser-known areas to explore. And while this has yielded some very cool discoveries – I can tell you seven different places to do your laundry – it means I haven’t made it to some of the places closest to campus. So, taking advantage of “showing the parents the town,” I have managed to check a few places off the list.

Let me just say: being a tourist is exhausting. First, you have to walk from the hotel to breakfast. Then you need to figure out what you’re going to do that day, which can be very stressful. After that there is more walking to reach the first site of the day. Then there is walking with your tour guide, followed by whatever extra exploring you want to do. And after that there is still more walking to the next location where the whole process is repeated. Due to the amount of Nutella in my diet at the moment, I’m really not prepared for that kind of exercise.

A rare moment of sun in Dublin.
They landed early Friday morning, so between the jet lag on their part and an early-morning fire alarm on mine, some caffeine was definitely in order. Tea and scones at Avoca roused all present and we headed off to the first of our touristy destinations of the day: The Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is perhaps the easiest thing to find of Trinity’s campus – there is always a substantial line outside the Old Library building to let you know exactly where to go and Friday was no exception. However, this let me use the single greatest perk of being at Trinity: every student gets in to see the book for free and gets to bring up to three guests and gets to skip the huge line. It really makes wading through endless hours of medieval bureaucracy worth it. The exhibit and book itself are stunning, an experience made all the sweeter by getting in ahead of the huge German tour group waiting outside.

The rest of the day was spent leisurely strolling around the City Centre. We had a lovely dinner that evening with a few of my friends before ending the night with a drink at a pub by campus. It was my first real ‘drink’ with my parents. Not as weird as expected, but definitely something I’m going to have to get used to.