Monday, June 25, 2012

Back from Vaca: Getting Around

OK, go figure.  I didn't manage to post over my vacation at all.  There was spotty Wi-Fi in some locations and had to share it with my wife when there was good Wi-Fi.  Besides that, I was having a great time exploring and meeting people.  As such I have loads of pictures to share.

Transportation was an obvious difference between the US and Europe.  Or at least, most of the US.  And granted, my vacation was only to large cities; Munich, Bamberg, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna.  The difference is that there were many more options to get from one place to another other than by taking a car.  In the more congested cities traffic was more dictated by the speed of bikes.  In cities designed with bikes and pedestrians in mind there were dedicated bike areas on the sidewalk.  This might apply similarly in certain US cities, but I am used to viewing bikers as a hazard on winding mountain roads (Come on, is fitness really worth that risk).  After being reminded repeatedly I finally quit intruding into the bike zone as we walked through the city.  Vienna even included a picture of a person on a bike in their pedestrian street lights.

Street Signal with Pedestrian and Bikers

There were many bikes and as there was much greater demand, bikes proliferated to serve many functions.  There were cargo bikes that had the seat pushed back further and a large, lowered basket up front.  One of the highlights was an octagonal bike used as a novalty rental and for what was supposed to be a bachelor party.


There was a bar bike.  It looked like a great way to keep your party going while travelling from point A to B.  One person would steer while several others would sit at a bar peddling and enjoying their favorite beverage.


There were bikes for getting a tour and taxi bikes.  There were bike and segway rentals.  Just call a number and the bike would unlock for you use as needed.

From Top: Self-guided Segway Rental. Some had the standard tire as shown while others had a tire that resembled a small one from a car.  The later pictures show different styles of bike taxi and tours.

We took the occasional four-wheeled, motorized taxi.  Just a note, as of this post many of the taxi's in Prague are run by the mafia and people are advised to be cautious of which ones they use.  Refer to any number of travel guides for more detailed information.  The only time we ended up needing one was from a railway station to hotel and back.  Most nicer hotels offer this service and the one we stayed at here was very nice; Hotel Josef

It was a great hotel with great service and amenities.  I highly recommend it.  They had their own taxi pick us up.  The driver was waiting for us outside a Burger King with a sign with our name on it.  Bottles of still water were in the doors (generally you have to specify still water, otherwise you will likely get sparkling water which means it is carbonated).  This is not guaranteed, but ours had a full moon roof and the driver was very informative.  The city is known for its architecture, so being picked up for a ten minute tour while being able to see the compete skyline was an incredible introduction. 

The Burger King part was funny for us, but the overall feel was that we were celebrities.  With all the one way, winding streets it would be easy for an untrustworthy taxi driver to take advantage so it is best to use your hotels to make those arrangements especially when you have some reason to be suspicious of the local drivers.

While in Germany, I was able to take this picture of myself while driving on the Autobon.  Ok, you got me, it was our friends that live there that drove.

Driving on the Autobon

We never rented a car, but we did stop at several sites to look at some.  We stopped at the VW Transparent Factory in Dresden.  It is worth going to visit even if there are no pictures allowed inside.  When we went, they were making the Phaeton.  If anyone is interested in one, they let you play as much of a role in the manufacture as you want.  It did not sound like there is a discount from the $100,000 price tag for helping.  

In what looked like a mall were all sorts of vehicles.  There were these horrible ones that I cannot imagine anyone would want.  Their quality was so low that they had the worst possible efficiency rating.

 This must be an antique vehicle from when emissions standards were much less.

On the other end of the spectrum was this spectacular bit of engineering.  I was lucky enough that none of the crowd flocking to this vehicle obstructed my photo.

This should be advertised with a play on the company name as Volts-Wagen.

I was still a little anxious about getting used to the subway systems.  I always expect them to be horribly confusing.  But they are basically all the same.  Hotels frequently have maps and the reception desk can tell you which platforms to use for the places you are interested in visiting.  One of our maps was getting so marked up it was almost confusing if we were still following the correct route for the day.  Most of the time you will only go to the city center and look around.  But if you feel comfortable talking to people, use the chance of being on public transportation to learn some less touristy attractions.  The previously mentioned taxi driver told us about a restaurant called Lokal near our hotel in Prague.  We spoke to a waiter at a French restaurant and ended up taking the subway to meet him at a club in Berlin.  On a train ride from Berlin to Prague we actually met a person in foreign affairs.  He was very interesting and well spoken.  He suggested a restaurant for us to try in Vienna called Skopik & Lohn.  The first part of the name is also a dessert drink in the menu.  The manager there told us, probably regrettingly after the fact, that someone who spoke Italian informed him the name has a very different meaning in that language. 

We had mixed experiences on the trains.  It seems if you travel from one European Union (EU) country to another it will be a better experience.  If you leave a EU country it will be a decent experience.  If you leave on the earliest train there will be fewer crowds.  Those are just some assumptions from our limited experiences.  The only bad, potentially horrible, experience was from the Czech Republic to Austria.  I recall that story below, because now that it is over I can laugh about it.

People could get assigned seats but most did not.  We were among the many that did not.  The tickets could only be purchased at the station in the days leading up to our departure (seemed that way at least).  The result was many people cramming into a narrow aisle. 

There are doors to get on to the train cars at both ends.  There are doors to go between train cars at both ends.  People entered both doors from the platform and proceeded to think they were correct in yelling to the other side they need to move back for everyone to find a seat; pointless.  The next thing people started shouting was, "My seat is right there.  I need to get there."  My first thought was a sarcastic 'Oh, that's brilliant.  How about I start shouting that too!'  Not that it would matter since all of us were deadlocked in the middle of the train.  Again, pointless.

I eventually ended up at the end of the car.  I was about to get off because I did not think they would leave with everyone as we were.  Maybe I could find another car with an opening.  I was mistaken.  As I was at the door I was instructed not to get off.  The train was leaving.  For the first hour of a five hour trip I had a window seat.  It was on the floor.  My leg room was the space between the step to exit and the door.

My Window Seat. To my left, luggage.  To my right, the exit door.

My wife, myself, and a person we met on vacation from Richmond, Virginia were all seated in this narrow passage closest to the exits and lavatory.  The entire experience would have been much worse without someone to complain to/with.  Misery loves company.  We were already laughing about it.  Slowly people settled.  Slowly people found seats.  The aisle cleared.  One of the Virginian's friends mentioned there were available seats in First Class.  It sounded far too much like a trek to the Promised Land to me.  We stayed put.  Cindy scouted for seats.  She arrived a few minutes later with word of enough seats for us four cars back.  We packed up camp to set forth. 

The Virginian got snake bit while forging a river (Oregon Trail reference).  He stopped at an earlier seat.  Cindy (my wife) and I ended up in one of about five cabins in a car that had six seats; three on adjacent walls facing each other.  One person who sat across from us kept headphones on and read a book the entire time.  I never knew his nationality.  At the window seats (real ones this time) was another couple. 

My original guess was that they were from the UK.  They guessed the same of me.  They were from Boston.  The first time that I heard the accent in his voice was when he actually said "Boston".  Cindy and I expected them to be stand-off-ish.  They were older and to the point.  The man asked his wife something about trying to figure out how fast they were traveling.  He asked it in the form of a question a runner would know.  So I pitched in that a 5k is 3.16 miles.  Then he asked me more math questions, so I pulled out my phone to answer.  It was the lead in for a conversation that went on for most of the ride. 

They were not stand-off-ish; just Northerners.  It is a common misconception Southerners will assume.  They not only spoke English but they were also liberal minded.  It was nice to be able to preach to the choir for a change.  It seemed like they felt the same way.  It is another reason to speak to people.  It made the trip that much more bareable.  Then, we essentially struggled together to find our way out of the station and to a taxi; horribly confusing.  All of which was only resolved by asking random people where to go. 

When a car is the main form of transportation it is easy to not talk to anyone.  In another country finding your way, getting there, and having plans once you get there are all much easier if you talk to people.  Our main form of information was ripped from us most of the time.  Until there is a global sevice provider that does not charge outragous fees for roaming we will always have to resort to it.  Intercourse with multiple strangers is a necessity.  Don't be a pervert, look up the definition of intercourse.

Overall, it was an incredible trip.  My wife and I had loads of fun.  Some other people we know are also going to visit the same friends.  I hope they have just as fun as we did.


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