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July 21, 2012

POTD: Venetian gondola

My favorite part of living in London, aside from the pubs, was the availability of low-cost Europe flights. For less than $100 we flew London to Rome, Rome to Venice, and Venice to London. Of course, you have to contend with RyanAir, which is quite lacking in service, but I think the trade-off is worth it.

Of all the places I visited while living in Europe, Venice was definitely one of my favorites. It is, of course, an incredibly beautiful city, and I loved the quirkiness of the place (no cars, just boats. They even have police, ambulance, and UPS boats). The food was amazing, especially when sitting canal-side, and we couldn’t get enough of the gelato so often had it 2-3 times per day. While we went in the summer, when Venice is crowded with tourists, I did not find it to be completely overwhelming. All we had to do was just turn down a few side streets and we would soon find ourselves in a quiet courtyard away from the mass of tourists. The nights were incredibly peaceful as well. When we arrived in Venice late one evening, the entire city seemed to be deserted, and we had to walk for quite awhile to find something for dinner (thankfully we stumbled upon a pizzeria that was closing and sold us their last two slices and a gyro).

One thing we didn’t do, however, was hire a gondola (the boat in the above photo). They were running over 60 euros for less than an hour (and from what I was told that was one of the cheaper rides). Since that was way over our budget, we stick to riding around the canals on the cheaper, but less charming vaporetti (water buses).

pin it button POTD: Venetian gondola
July 15, 2012

POTD: Prague Main Railway Station

If I had to name one thing that I missed the most about Europe, it would have to be the rail network. Yes, we have passenger rail service in the United States, but Amtrak can’t even compare to Germany’s Deutsche Bahn or the United Kingdom’s National Rail. For instance, the top speed on Amtrak’s “high-speed” Acela train on the Washington, DC to New York City route is 135mph, compared to the Eurostar which races along at 186mph.

The Eurostar was my preferred method of travel when visiting Paris or Brussels due to the speed (less than two hours to either city), location (no schlepping out to the airport) and price (£59 roundtrip). Within the UK, I’ve used National Rail to visit cities such as Cambridge and Gloucester, both quick, comfortable journeys. (For those who are looking for a more relaxing, scenic journey, steam rail tours are available in northern England, Wales, Scotland, and northern Germany).

The above photo is of Praha hlavní nádraží (Prague main railway station). As part of our December 2009 Central Europe trip we took the train from Berlin to Prague (and after spending a few days there attempting to find the best Czech beer, onward to Vienna). Although the Art Nouveau inspired exterior and interior of the train station could use a bit of renovation, I loved the traditional steel and glass canopy that stretched over the tracks.

An interesting aside – from 1918 – 1938 and 1945 – 1953, the station was named after US President Woodrow Wilson (Wilsonovo nádraží) in honor of his contribution to the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War I.

pin it button POTD: Prague Main Railway Station
June 7, 2012

POTD: Dubrovnik

If I had to pick one place in Europe to retire to, it would be Dubrovnik. It is just an incredible city with a great mix of history, architecture and natural beauty. My first visit to Dubrovnik was in April 2005, when some friends and I decided to go there on a whim. We had originally planned to visit Malta, but the posters at the student travel agency and low price convinced us to book a trip to Croatia instead. We didn’t know anything about the country, aside from war-torn images we had seen on the evening news in the early 1990s. When we landed at the airport, the first question from our cab driver was if we were here to buy real estate. Apparently there was a real estate boom underway when we arrived, and he spent most of his time ferrying Western Europeans, along with their real estate agent and credit expert, from property to property. Since the three of us were just graduate students, we weren’t quite in the market for any seaside real estate and would have to be content with our small budget hotel room.

Thankfully, visiting Dubrovnik wasn’t that expensive (remember that this was over seven years ago, however, before it once again became a playground for the rich and famous). The restaurants we visited in the Old Town served cheap and delicious pizzas, seafood, and liters of Karlovačka beer. The locals were friendly and engaging, asking us where we were from, and when learning that we hailed from California, telling us about their relatives who had fled to the Los Angeles area during the war.

Overall, it was an amazing trip and I can’t wait to go back. And if I win the lottery, I’m definitely buying a flat in the heart of the city.

pin it button POTD: Dubrovnik
December 22, 2011

POTD: Venice Grand Canal

Yes, Venice again. I know it’s quite possibly one of the biggest travel cliches out there, but I adored this city. We spent a few days here during our holidays in Italy, after visiting Rome. This is the Grand Canal, the major water-traffic corridor in the city. You can take either the water buses (vaporetti) or gondolas. Since the gondolas were way out of our price range, we stuck to the public transportation. The canal is is 3,800 m long, 30–90 m wide, with an average depth of five meters (16.5 ft). The buildings that line the banks of the Grand Canal date from the 13th to the 18th century. We had an excellent lunch at a nice little cafe along the canal and loved watching the boats go by as we chowed down on pizza. Since boats are the main form of transportation in Venice, there are ambulance speedboats, police speedboats, mail boats, and even UPS boats so the locals can receive their packages.

pin it button POTD: Venice Grand Canal
December 18, 2011

POTD: Roman Forum

The above structure is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, originally built in the year 141. It is currently in the Roman Forum area in the center of of Rome, and contains a number of ancient structures dating back to Rome’s heyday as an empire. Along with the Colosseum and Vatican, the Forum will certainly be on the itinerary of whatever tours to Italy you might take.

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built by Emperor Antoninus Pius and was initially dedicated to his deceased wife, Faustina the Elder. When Antoninus Pius died in 161, the temple was re-dedicated to Antoninus and Faustina at the behest of his successor, Marcus Aurelius. It was later converted to a Roman Catholic church, known as San Lorenzo in Miranda, sometime in the 7th century.

I visited the Forum while on a trip to Rome and Venice in 2005. While I would love to go back someday, I would prefer one of the Italy tours that focuses on the countryside, perhaps in Tuscany.

pin it button POTD: Roman Forum
October 19, 2011

POTD: The Brezhnev / Honecker kiss on the Berlin Wall

Brezhnev and Honecker kissing on the Berlin Wall

This one of the more amusing panels you will see at the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery. It is a reproduction of a Berlin Wall graffiti painting titled “My God, help me to survive this deadly love” that depicts an actual kiss that took place between Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker in 1979:

Breznev Honecker 1979 300x196 POTD: The Brezhnev / Honecker kiss on the Berlin Wall

A quick peck on the cheek was a typical greeting among communist leaders in Eastern Europe, but Honecker apparently took it to extremes, provoking the ire of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last communist leader of Poland. In a 2005 interview, Jaruzelski claimed that one of the most unpleasant parts of his job was kissing Honecker, due to his “disgusting way of kissing”.

pin it button POTD: The Brezhnev / Honecker kiss on the Berlin Wall
September 27, 2011

POTD: Fort Bokar, Dubrovnik

Fort Bokar in Dubrovnik

Fort Bokar in Dubrovnik

Completed in 1463, Fort Bokar is a key part of the system of defensive walls that surround the Old City of Dubrovnik. These walls are considered one of the great fortification systems of the Middle Ages, as they were never breached by a hostile army during this time period. Since its founding in the 7th century, Dubrovnik has been subjected to various sieges throughout its long history, most recently in 1991, when it was besieged and shelled by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army.

Of all the places I have traveled to, Dubrovnik remains one of my favorite destinations. Its beauty is unrivaled, the food is amazing, and the people are warm and hospitable. I hope to return there sometime in the near future.

pin it button POTD: Fort Bokar, Dubrovnik
September 18, 2011

POTD: Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

This is the lower level of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the main railway station in Berlin. I visited this train station in December 2009, when my family and I were taking a train from Berlin to Prague as part of our Central Europe itinerary. Although it may not seem like it from the photo, the train station was actually quite crowded (we had apparently just arrived super-early for our train) with Berliners headed to various points in Europe to enjoy their weekends in the country or the all inclusive ski holidays for families they had booked.

I’m a huge fan of train travel, especially if it is an alternative to flying or driving somewhere. There is no invasive security, and trains themselves are usually much more comfortable, with larger seats and ample room to walk around the train car. Our train trip from Berlin to Prague took us only 4.5 hours. The scenery on the way was incredibly beautiful; we passed through the Erzgebirge mountains, which were dotted with small villages perched on the banks of an alpine river. In addition, the dining car was well-stocked with German beers, so the 4.5 hours passed quickly, and before we knew it, we had arrived at Praha hlavní nádraží, Prague’s main railway station. It was a cold and snowy that afternoon in Prague, the exact opposite of my previous trip there in July 2005, when it was gloriously sunny and warm. The winter weather, however, seems more true to the character of the city, and somehow makes the beef with cream and dumplings taste that much better.

pin it button POTD: Berlin Hauptbahnhof
September 11, 2011

POTD: Saints Cyril and Methodius statue on Prague’s Charles Bridge

st charles bridge in prague

st charles bridge in prague

Taken on a cold winter morning in late December 2009, this photo shows the statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine Greek brothers who introduced Christianity to the Slavs and invented the Cyrillic alphabet. Prague Castle can be seen in the background.

pin it button POTD: Saints Cyril and Methodius statue on Pragues Charles Bridge
June 5, 2011

POTD: Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican City

The above photo is of St. Peter’s Square, located in the Vatican City, the papal enclave in Rome, Italy. The Vatican was one of the first places we visited while in Rome since it was located just a few blocks from the apartment we were renting.

When people ask me for travel advice, one of my most frequent recommendations is to rent an apartment in whatever city you are visiting, especially if you are travelling with a group in one of the more expensive Western European cities (or Eastern Europe, where the majority of my apartment rentals have been). Rome apartments are quite plentiful and extremely well-priced when compared to hotels. Our apartment was very spacious, located in a secure pre-war building with a lovely courtyard, and just steps from the Vatican and many excellent restaurants. Of course, the apartment included a full kitchen so that we could pick up some groceries at the nearby store and save money by having one of our daily meals at the apartment. I much prefer renting apartments to staying in hotels because you get a greater feel for what life is like in the city – something you don’t typically encounter at many of the sterile-like hotels that most tourists frequent. And, of course, the best thing is the price – the money you save by renting an apartment can be well-spent at the local restaurants and pubs! icon smile POTD: Saint Peters Square in the Vatican City

pin it button POTD: Saint Peters Square in the Vatican City