Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Switzerland, So Far

Well, I've been in Switzerland over two weeks now, so I decided I should probably write something (then again, considering how far behind I am in posting anything else...). This here will be a quick overview of what I am doing - and have done - in Switzerland to date.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Prague: Day 1

After my post on Montreal a few days ago, I've jumped back to last year's Europe trip for this post. From the Saxony Switzerland region in Germany, which I posted about before Montreal, we hopped on a train and went onwards to Prague.

Oh my goodness, Prague. Where do I even begin to describe Prague? It was beautiful, amazing, touristy, wild, crazy, shocking…

That last point began even on the train ride there. Oftentimes, when you cross a country border, there is little or no change (think of the US-Canada border. If not for the border control – of course – you’d never know you were suddenly in a different country). Not so with the Germany-Czech border. Tristan and I spent quite a while discussing what, exactly, the difference was, and weren’t able to really put a finger on it.

I think the difference can be summed up with this: the Czech side of the border looks less nice. Whereas the German side had been pristine, with sweet little villages of red-roofed brick or half-timber houses in marvelous condition surrounded by green forest, the Czech side had factories, supermarkets, cargo barges on the river (and thus freight harbors), ugly new apartment blocks surrounding those same little villages – and also, as far as I could see, much more decay than Germany. Tristan summed it up well later when he said it looked distinctly Eastern European, which neither of us had seen before.

To be clear: I attach no judgment to this. I do, after all, come from North America, and I’d say the towns looked no worse and quite possibly better than your average North American town. As well, the Sächsische Schweiz is one of the nicest and most pristine area of Germany I’ve seen; it’s not like the country doesn’t have its own big cities and industrial areas (if you know anything about Germany’s economy, you’ll know it’s more like the opposite…)

Anyways, the sudden and unexpected change, as well as a large influx of people onto the train as soon as we crossed the border, and a language barrier, and we found ourselves mildly culture-shocked.

Thankfully that feeling didn’t last, and the next morning found us ready to explore the beautiful city. First stop? Being massive tourists and visiting Prague castle.

The castle is HUGE. I’ve been in and around quite a few European castles and none that I can remember compare to the sheer size of this one. We got lost in the gardens just trying to find the entrance. Not that we minded, since they’re beautiful and provide lovely views of the cathedral and other castle buildings!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Impressions of Montreal

Finding that people were a lot friendlier than I'd expected.

People everywhere I walked nodding or smiling at me, or even calling out greetings.

Huge, lushly green trees, red brick buildings, spiral staircases, and gorgeous colourful doors everywhere.

The indescribable freedom of being completely alone, having no plans (other than going to the Swiss consulate, which was the impetus behind the trip), and being beholden to no one. I could follow my whims and do whatever I felt like doing at any given point in time (how often do we actually get that chance?).

Walking around my old area, looking for something, a memory or a spark of recognition, feeling like I was chasing ghosts, like I was trying to grasp a dream.

Finding it, finally, once I'd nearly given up.

Doing the same at the Westmount library.

Going down to the old port at 9 am with my camera, because I'd been up early and the light was good and I wanted to take pictures. Thinking I'd look like the ultimate tourist, but deciding I'd go regardless. Finding no tourists there (it was too early, I guess), only some locals going for runs or walks and a few who were filming something. Judging by the friendly nods and greetings I received, I appeared - to my surprise - to be read as a local photographer and not as a tourist.

The old man who paused to tell me he liked my hat (I was wearing my favourite hat, a grey wool-felt trilby).

The best car paint job I've ever seen.

The jolly bus driver and the random bus-taker who, with friendly grins and not-unkind laughter, helped me heft my giant bag into and out of the bus's luggage storage.

Trying to practice my French and getting responses mostly in English.

And, most of all, replacing my old bitter, negative associations towards this city with something better and finding, to my own great shock, that I like it.

I may even, one day, learn to love it.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Saxony Switzerland Day 2: Castles and Camping Mishaps

In my first post about this region of Germany, I talked about our hiking mishaps. The post ended when we made it to our campground, but unfortunately our mishaps did not.

Mainly, we were out of food.

So, being millennials, we googled “supermarkets in Hohnstein” and found one that would be open until 10 pm. As it was around or even past 9 pm at this point, we raced off onto the approximately 20-minute walk into Hohnstein proper, despite being exhausted, sore, and hungry.

20 minutes later, we found ourselves in Hohnstein. But we didn’t see the turn off we were looking for. So we kept walking…and walking…We finally asked someone, only to be told that there were no supermarkets in Hohnstein. The next closest was a good couple minutes’ drive away, too far to walk easily, and busses were not running anymore…and wouldn’t be running over the weekend. Big sigh. There was a little convenience store-type of place that would be open over the weekend, but was closed for the day. Another sigh. (I’m not totally sure how this happened, but Germans often use similar names for different towns, usually with a prefix or suffix, or hyphenated with another name, so it’s possible that google showed us a different town with the same name instead. Or something).

We were obviously some very unhappy campers at this point (literally! Am I not hilarious?). Thankfully, the campground offered a daily Brötchenservice (bun delivery service), since Germans can’t be asked to live without freshly-bakes buns for breakfast, no matter how much they’re roughing it. This service amused us to no end (I’m not exaggerating the importance of fresh Brötchen), but ended up being our saving grace. We ordered enough buns to last us for the day and cobbled together a dinner out of the food we had left. Another saving grace: the sunny day turned into a beautifully clear night sky that we got to admire before bed.

Now, this wasn’t the end of the mishaps…when setting up the tent, a tent peg was missing, even though I could have sworn there were enough when we left. We bought new ones in Hohnstein the next day, but all they had was an entire package (no single ones), that was expensive, and the tent pegs sucked. They still elicit the occasional curse on camping trips. Then there was the chocolate that melted…all over my backpack’s lid pocket…and then we went to town (more on that in a second) and though we were done with mishaps.

Unfortunately, once back in our campground, we realized that our mishaps were not over yet. Tristan had put his bar of soap onto my hiking boots in order to keep it off of the ground, but the soap had disappeared. I reached into the boot to see if the bar of soap had slipped in – and in lieu of a bar of soap, I felt a strange, hard layer where my insole should be. Tristan’s soap hadn’t slid into my boot; it had melted into my boot. I was fuming. I was afraid that my boot was ruined – I’d only purchased them last year and hadn’t used them much since., so they were nearly new at the time. Poor Tristan of course felt bad about the shoe and was also disappointed about the loss of a nearly new bar of soap (it was Lush soap too, so you really can’t fault the guy!). My worries, at least, were unfounded: most the soap just peeled out, and most of the residue that was left behind subsequently rinsed easily out of the insole. It became a standing joke that at least one of my feet would not only never smell badly, but would smell of Lush.


The morning after our first night of camping dawned even hotter than the previous day (35°C!!!). Between that and our very sore legs (and my sunburn…Tristan of course doesn’t ever burn, sigh) we decided against hiking and went to explore the village instead.

This turned out to be an excellent choice.
Photo by Tristan
 Hohnstein is a really cute, largely medieval town set on essentially the edge of a mountain, overlooking a fairly steep and narrow valley (the one we hiked through on our last day). This gives the town an interesting look, as houses are placed at drastically different levels, and many of the streets run steeply downhill. That also made it interesting (if tiring on the legs!) to explore.

Both by Tristan
Towering above the town is the eponymous castle, which was somewhat obviously our main destination in the town.

But first, a coffee/ice cream break.
No pictures of the food this time, but this was the view from the cafe. Also Tristan's wearing my sunglasses.
The castle is well preserved mainly thanks to the fact that, unlike most castles in Europe, it was in use for most of its life. Once it was no longer needed for its original purpose (defense) nor used as a main residence, it was maintained as a hunting lodge for the rulers of the region. Later on, it served as a prison and the seat of justice for the region before becoming a youth camp and hostel. When the Nazis took over the castle, they made use of the dungeons and defensible position left over from its previous purposes and turned it (sadly) into a concentration camp. In the Second World War the castle was used as a POW camp; towards the end of the war it was turned into a refugee camp for Germans and German speaking people fleeing from the East (particularly what is now the Czech Republic). Nowadays, the castle has been restored to its pre-WWI purpose and serves as a hotel and youth hostel.
Another castle wall.
While the majority of the castle’s rooms are given over to its main purpose, a few of the rooms are little museums you can visit. These rooms include two dungeons; one has a (slightly disturbing) exhibit on medieval justice, while the other contains several memorials to people who were imprisoned (some in that very room) and killed at the castle during its time as a concentration camp.

There is also a little museum containing a number of artifacts found at the castle over the years, as well as its history and information on what life might have been like there in medieval times. This kind of thing is fairly typical for castles (although most castles I’ve been to don’t have quite this colourful a history!), but I found this a particularly nice little museum. I particularly like this little guy:
I did promise you guys more dragons
You can also climb the old tower, which we of course did. You get lovely views over the adjacent valley and the surrounding countryside.
The tower
Tristan on the tower's spiral staircase
Old weapons on display, near the base of the tower.
Surrounding the castle is a garden and some small paths. Particularly striking is one that leads to a viewpoint over a steep cliff.
The gate leading to the garden (with teeny Tristan in the background)

The viewpoint
The views were certainly lovely, but what made the viewpoint striking was a small memorial plaque. During the time the castle was a concentration camp, the Nazis forced several prisoners to run at and over the cliffs to their deaths.

A general memorial to the time of the Nazis and the Second World War stands just outside the entrance to the castle. I’ve never seen a memorial quite like this one, so I found it very interesting from an architectural standpoint (my dad told me later that it’s actually very typical for socialist-era memorials in Germany, but oh well. It looks to my untrained eye like it might be an example of Soviet Brutalist architecture, any knowledgeable folks care to weigh in?). The inscription translates roughly to “as a reminder and warning for the living”.

We had a small lunch in the castle’s restaurant too, which was really cute, and with really good “home-cooked” food. The restaurant sold locally-made Leberwurst (liverwurst sausage), which Tristan bought a glass of and loved so much he promptly ate all of it on our hike the next day. We went back after the hike to buy more, much to the amusement of the restaurant staff. For myself, I found a locally-made cheese in a little artisanal/”natural” foods-type store that I also went and bought more of the next day.
The cheese store (photo by Tristan)

Castle stay

We had been jokingly tossing around the idea of staying in the castle while walking around there, but were convinced that it would be too expensive for us. To our surprise, this was not the case, so a decision was made and a room booked for the next night (Sunday to Monday).

Sunday was the day we hiked from Bastei to Hohnstein. We got to the castle around 9 am (we had been told that checkout wasn't until 10 am but we'd be able to store our luggage) and checked in. The staff was apologetic about the fact that they didn't yet have a room for us! They gave us keys to a locked room we could put our bags and promised they'd have a room ready for us ASAP. Meanwhile we went off on our hike.

When we got back to our room, this is what greeted us in our room:

And this was the view from our room (no big deal or anything!):
Both pictures by Tristan
The room itself was a fairly average hotel room (both the beds and the bathroom were nicer than normal, however!), but this isn't a bad thing, and the setting of course is more than worth it. We payed around 75 euros in total for the double room, and dorms are even cheaper, which is very reasonable when you, again, consider the location. Breakfast is included, and I can easily say it was the best breakfast we had all trip! The staff, too, went out of their way to be kind and accommodating to us. Unlike our first night in Erfurt, where we paid nearly as much for a hostel, this was definitely money well spent.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

My upcoming travel plans

As I write this, I'm surrounded by piles of stuff to be packed in my room. Tomorrow I leave, and I'm going insane with packing at the moment...ahhhh!

My first stop will be Montreal, where I'm just staying for the night. From there, I fly out to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for a conference. I'm really excited about this one - it's a city I've long wanted to visit, and marks a new province for me. The only part of the east coast I've visited (and furthest east I've been in Canada) is New Brunswick, and that as a child, so I'm definitely looking forward to exploring more of this region of the country.

From there, I embark on my big adventure: I'm going to Switzerland for the summer! I'll be there for a research internship (once I get my visa *crosses fingers*). I'll be trying to post about that adventure on here, so stay tuned!

My next post about last summer's trip will be up soon as well (I can't promise I'll finish it today, however), and I'll keep posting on that as well. Cheers!