Thursday, September 8, 2011

european travels of the non-neovictorian kind

Hello all!  I came back from my two-week trip throughout Europe this past Monday.  A much needed trip that took me completely out of my comfort zone and has left me feeling a bit stunned in many ways.

My sister Leigh and I started out in Munich, Germany, then went to see the beautiful Neuschwanstein castle near Fussen.  The castle was built by 19th century Bavarian king Ludwig II, creator of several fantasy castles and a patron of Richard Wagner:

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria
We then traveled to Prague, the Czech Republic, Wroclaw, Poland, and finally reached Kaunas, Lithuania at the end of our first week.

The land around Kaunas reminded me a great deal of Pittsburgh due to its rolling hills and rivers and sans surrounding mountains.  No wonder my great-grandparents (and other Eastern Europeans) liked Pittsburgh- the topography is so similar.

Overall I highly recommend visiting Lithuania for the folloing reasons:
  • English is a common tourist language in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipeda, and we got by in Siauliai.
  • The currency used in Lithuania, the lita, converts in favor of the Euro and the US dollar (at the disadvantage of the Lithuanians, of course- theirs is a very poor First World country).
  • The people and the land are beautiful.
  • The beer is delicious (although it probably doesn't compare to German beer.  I'm not a beer connoisseur, so I wouldn't know.)
  • The architecture is simple but remarkable in the Old Towns and the churches.  The Shrine of the Virgin in Vilnius just glows in the sunlight, and the Cathedral of Vilnius is a great example of Greek styled architecture with a rather gaudily and intricately decorated marble shrine to St. Casimir inside.
  • If you are looking to visit a country that reached the height of its greatness at the end of the medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance era (although it is not known for contributing anything significant to the Renaissance) this is the place to visit. 
  • Go to Trakai Castle for the reason I stated above (medieval history) and just because it's awesome:
Trakai Castle.  Yes, it is really that beautiful.
I am not a good enough photographer to make that photo look so picturesque.
There were also a few things I learned about backpacking:
  • Don't expect it to be a relaxing vacation unless you plan to spend more than two days at any given location.  Leigh and I were generally rushing from city to city on our rather wide sweep of parts of Eastern Europe.
  • That being said, also don't try to see absolutely everything.  You will fail and be disappointed.  I actually didn't try to see absolutely everything, so I am glad I didn't try.
  • Make sure your backpack is sturdy.  I had an Osprey Farpoint 55.  It was perfect except for the fact that it made my back rather hot and sweaty after a time.  I solved this problem by adjusting the straps so the bulk of the weight was on my butt sometimes, leaving a gap for air to go onto my back.  When I did this with the entire backpack I could only do that for short periods of time or else I risked hurting my back.
  • Have sturdy shoes.  I bought hiking boots for our heavy walking days.
  • Make sure you have good, thick socks for your shoes, especially if they are sturdy hiking boots.  I also bought ones that were damp-resistant.
  • Dress for all sorts of weather.  I erroneously listened to my twin sister and came to Europe with mostly fall weather clothes- two pairs of long trousers and mostly long-sleeved or 3-quarter sleeved shirts.  Unfortunately the Continent was experiencing something of a heatwave- 80 degree temperatures in the daytime, which is more like Pittsburgh in August.  I sweated my way through Munich, Prague, and Poland.  Only when we arrived in Lithuania did the heat dissipate, making the clothes I brought actually practical for my purposes.
  • Make sure there is room in your backpack for souvenirs before you purchase any.
  • Make sure you know what the exchange rates are for the various countries you are visiting so you know what is a good price, what is a bargain and what is neither of these things.  Leigh and I got burned in Riga, Latvia, due to not doing this.  
  • Be polite and try to learn basics of the local language- such as "Hello," "Goodbye," "Yes," "No," "Thank you," "Excuse me," "How much?" and "Where is..."
  • As soon as you arrive in a city procure a map for that city (if you do not have one already)
Other than that, I became pretty good at reading nonverbal signals from people whose language I did not speak.  When something could not be communicated nonverbally (usually with money exchanges or getting from location A to location B) the information written on a piece of paper was usually just as good of a way to communicate.  Despite a reputation for bad customer service, Lithuanians were so friendly and helpful for the most part.  It may have helped that they had a larger influx of tourists than normal due to hosting EuroBasket 2011, which started around the time we arrived.  

Leigh and I in Kaunas, Lithuania
Although I have been home for a few days, everything seems so unreal to me.  I feel like my perception of reality is off.  It's as if I've been gone for two months instead of two weeks.  I can do normal tasks, but they seem foreign to me and somewhat different.  Anyone ever experience this sense of reality not being as it was after a trip to another part of the world?

1 comment:

  1. Totally! I've been to the UK twice now for three weeks at a time. Each visit it seemed like I was there for two months and it feels like you are in a time outside of regular time somehow.
    Love the photos! Sounds like an amazing adventure. :)