It was Heath who selected Boston and its neighbors to the north for our annual pilgrimage to Anywhere But Texas. A student of history and obsessive collector of revolutionary facts, New England — what with its statues of white men in tricorne hats, and old buildings in which to congregate those very same tricorne hat-wearing white men–seemed the ideal destination for scratching that colonial itch. (Fun fact: colonial itch was the term of endearment Ben Franklin gave to his STD).
Allow me to pontificate on the three important lessons learned from this jingoistic jaunt.
Boston’s Freedom Trail is maybe 90% cool and 10% tacky.
The Freedom trail is a walking tour of some of the can’t miss historical sites prominently featured in American history. It mostly encompasses places where our revolutionary heroes either died or thought about dying. I’m talking of course about massacre sites and churches. But all-in-all it’s an enjoyable way to spend the morning. And thanks to the National Park Service (a government agency so fine, even Ron Swanson can support it) you can get a docent-guided tour for free every hour on the hour. Highlights include: park rangers sneering at freedom trail buskers, lots and lots and lots of facts about Paul Revere, and the realization that the Declaration of Independence is one of the most tedious break up letters ever written.
New England’s seafood game is on point.
“Oh you’re going to New England, huh? Are you excited about the lobster?” I was a little surprised that question — or a variation of it — was the most consistent reaction I got upon telling people about our summer plans. But I get it now. New England is all about seafood, and maybe its because the memory is as fresh as the lobsters we cooked up at our campsite, but the seafood offerings here far surpass those of other coastal food hubs (I’m looking at you Seattle). And I’m not talking simply about your high-quality seafood restaurants here. Whether we were throwing back raw oysters at chic oyster bars, nomming on buttery fish and chips at English pubs, or drooling over foot-long lobster rolls at harbor-side restaurants, we were bowled over by the the most intensely flavorful and perfectly prepared seafood we’ve ever tasted.
If Ken Burns doesn’t feel stupid for omitting Acadia from his national parks documentary, he probably should.
Have you seen the documentary? The one where Peter Coyote waxes poetic about Yosemite and Yellowstone and Join Muir for 12 hours but doesn’t give Acadia a courtesy nod? It’s a conspiracy is what it is. Acadia is the oldest national park East of the Mississippi, and it may easily be the most beautiful. The sun supposedly rises first on Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain before anywhere else in America, and it has one of the largest expanses of naturally dark sky in the Eastern U.S.–meaning whether you’re an early bird or a stargazing night owl, this park is for you. It’s also a phenomenal place for cyclists thanks to our pal John D. Rockefeller who, in the early 20th century, had some 50 miles of carriage roads thoughtfully designed to weave about the park. We’re more of a hiking/camping duo ourselves, so we stuck to the trails that meander through the trees and along granite rock slabs that plunge into the ocean. Acadia is located on Mount Desert Island, which also plays home to the Bar Harbor, a charming resort town. But despite it’s proximity to this popular tourist destination, the park was relatively uncrowded, even during its peak season. While campsites require a reservation and fill up quickly, we very infrequently passed others on our many hiking excursions. Perhaps it’s because Acadia is not an easy park to get to, or perhaps it’s because few have ever heard of it before. If the latter, sorry Ken Burns. Looks like you did me a solid. My bad, I hope we’re square now.
All in all, New England is an invigorating region. The colonial callbacks that pepper Boston’s streets and sidewalks, while perhaps expected, are nonetheless deeply inspiring. They serve as reminders of the courage and ambition that motivated our nation’s founders to create a new society–one that would encourage self-determination and put mechanisms in place to secure unalienable human rights. Meanwhile, in Acadia, the salty aroma of the Atlantic permeates the air as waves unceasingly claw at the granite cliffs it may, one day, turn into sand. We came to New England to study its history and revel in its natural beauty. We left, whether by forces of man or nature, rejuvenated.
Traipsing across the parking lot of the Home Depot this afternoon, I was confronted with a harsh, and deeply unpleasant reality. As the vicious sun attacked my helpless pupils and a band of sweat hugged the back of my neck, there was no more denying the truth. Summer is coming.
Austin has been blessed this year with an uncharacteristically long spring season. A mild winter was followed by an outpour of restorative rains that resulted in a long and fruitful growing season, cool spring afternoons and many a porch beer.
The encroaching heat serves as a disappointing reminder that soon we will replace counting fire flies over IPAs with swatting mosquitoes over profanities. The end is nigh, but I am careful NOT to take for granted the swath of magical spring nights we were fortunate enough to enjoy before the season turned against us. Not just this year, but every year. The garden has seen some amazing transformation since we first made it ours some 4 years back.
If there is one thing Berlin has plenty of, it’s patios. I like this. I don’t think there is any scenario in which I take umbrage with there being unlimited options for outside dining and wine drinking. It’s how I would spend all day every day if I had my druthers. And Graffiti. They like their chaotic street art in Berlin. Patios and graffiti. Oh, and their bicycles. Patios, graffiti and bicycles. And depressing, grandiose memorials. I should start over….
Truthfully, I was taken aback by Berlin’s laissez-faire attitude. Particularly as it is located in a country who’s people are stereotyped as being strict and rigid and preoccupied with maintaining order. As evidence of its go-with-the-flow personality, I submit to you their aforementioned lax policy on building defacement, as well as the fact that in Berlin, it’s perfectly acceptable to stroll down the street with a beer in hand–in glass bottles no less! Definitely a no-no stateside. Further, during an afternoon outing to one of the city’s community pools, we witnessed no fewer than 3924761432342 children sliding down a water slide at once. And running on wet cement–an activity the American lifeguard community views as being on par with smoking a cigarette indoors—is not only not reprimanded, it seemed downright encouraged. Then, there’s the part where before Heath jumped off the diving board, he politely asked the pool’s only lifeguard whether doing flips was permissible. He was met with a befuddled response: Of course this is fine. Why would it not be? Perhaps I’m applying the community pool’s gentle policies a little to liberally to the entire city, but still, Berlin as a whole seems content to let its people be. It’s likely the result of a long and tragic history marked by a series of oppressive and totalitarian regimes. But Berlin seems to have learned a thing or two from its past, and today enjoys a vibrant and resilient atmosphere.
But I say all this before arriving at the crux of my argument. Berlin–like every place–is made more special by the people you experience it with. Our German vacation was made what it was by the company we kept. As I’m inclined to list off all the things that make Berlin unique, I’m also inclined to include Nick and Melissa on that list—two people who were pivotal to the good times had.
Prague is a fairy tale of a city, if not an idiosyncratic one.
First, I’d categorize Prague as perhaps the most claustrophobia-inducing city in all of Europe, at least in my experience. Prague’s old town is chock-full of bone monsters. (That’s Clickhole’s sardonic terminology for “people.”) Really though, the tourist headcount here is unrivaled—even by the crowds at New York’s Times Square or at Orlando’s bouquet of theme parks. Perhaps the human population seems so dense because of the close proximity of all the town’s biggest tourist attractions to one another. Maybe too, it’s the narrowness of the streets. It could also very well be attributed to the fact that we chose to visit at the peak of tourist season, but nevertheless, expect to battle your way through a current of slow walkers, pan handlers, and backpack toters when you visit Prague.
I don’t bring this up to in anyway hint that Prague is a city to be passed over on any European vacays that might be in your future. On the contrary, it’s a delightful destination where they deeply value Pilsner beers, bacon stuffed dumplings, breathtaking city views and a perplexingly popular astronomical clock.
Let’s start with the clock, as it’s where Heath and I pretty much began our foray into Prague’s Old Town. If you have never heard of Prague’s 15th century astronomical clock, allow me to enlighten you. It starts with a very novel concept: it chimes every hour on the hour. I know, it sounds…absurd, unfathomable, outrageous? But stay with me. There are also little figurines that, when the clock chimes, follow a mechanical track in a circle until the chiming stops. It’s the stuff of black magic, I say. This enchanting ritual lures people from all over the world who marvel at the clock’s mysterious wonder.
How the clock came to be Prague’s unofficial mascot I’m sure I don’t know, but people go apeshit for this thing. What’s even more frustrating is how crowds gather in unbelievable masses beneath the clock before the top of the hour to witness the “miracle” in person, only to obstruct their view by holding their cell phone cameras in front of their face. Though, with so many distracted tourists gathered in such close proximity with arms raised overhead, it does make for a petty thief’s dream. If I were the editor of Pick-Pocket Monthly, I would most definitely feature Prague’s Astronomical Clock in the “10 Places to Pick Pockets Before You Die” issue. One thing I will say for the clock, however, is the tower offers up some of the best views of the city. That experience is one not to be missed.
The food in Prague is another topic on which I’d like to share a few thoughts. Now of course, it stands to reason that any urban center is going to have diverse offerings that hail from all regions of the globe, but where I want to focus my efforts is on what I understand to be traditional (yet modern) Czech cuisine. Suffice it to say, vegetarians ought to take heed in the Czech Republic Capital. In my limited experience, I encountered virtually the same menu at every Czech-oriented eating establishment: dumplings, bread, meat, cabbage and, if you’re lucky, goulash. Now, was there variety among the dumplings and breads and meats and cabbages? Oh sure. Sometimes the dumplings were potato, sometimes bacon. Meats, well, the sky is really the limit. Pork knuckle? Pork shoulder? Pork head? It it’s pork, they have most definitely got it. Cabbage comes both in red and white, though it is most definitely always stewed and sweetened. This might sound like I was not enthused with this steady stream of meat and potatoes, but that would not be the case. It’s rare I get to dive headfirst into a never-ending pool of dense carbohydrates, rich proteins, and syrupy vegetables. So I quite enjoyed this deviation from the typical shrimp taco or chicken sandwich that I’m known to plop onto my plate. Though, you’d be correct in assuming I didn’t experience many hungry evenings in Prague.
Bonemonsters, superfluous meat plates and clockster-f@#ks aside, Prague is right up my alley. It’s one of the only major European centers not destroyed in WWII or culturally annihilated by the subsequent oppressive communist regime. What I’m trying to say is, Prague has a lot of experience just being Prague. And it seems comfortable in its own, cobblestone-covered skin.
Granted, most of our experience there was limited to 3 days in a tourist-heavy area, but I’d still say it’s a delicious city that celebrates the old without bathing in nostalgia, and welcomes the new without moving too rapidly toward a complete industrial overhaul. Blackening castles tower over street musicians who serenade tourists with Bob Dylan covers. And Pilsner beers can be ingested by mug or by bathtub (we tried both). The red roofs and spires of the skyline can be viewed from modern TV towers or park-laden bluffs. And absurd black light theaters are positioned next to classical churches, while lights from modern, high end fashion retail shops illuminate centuries old Jewish cemeteries down the road. But the juxtaposition doesn’t feel dichotomous. On the contrary, it’s harmonious.
These are mostly observations taken while in Prague’s downtown, but as is true in any well-loved community, off the tourist-beaten path, there is a lot to appreciate about Prague and its people.
During our stay in Prague, we took up residency with Tomas and his equally blonde female counterpart in their first floor airbnb apartment in a idyllic Hradčanská neighborhood. Upon arriving, Tomas made a point to show us where we were, where the main tourist sights were, and recommended places we should see that aren’t also recommended to 234228394753986436 other people by way of Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, what have you. As a result, we wound up spending a few of our mornings and evenings wrapped in the warm cloak of the easy-going and cordial keepers of the Cafe Calma, Indian by Nature, and Restaurace U veverky.
Well, for lack of a more eloquent synopsis, here ends my Prague Blague.
Berlin is teaming with street-front patios, confusing traffic signs, gratuitous graffiti and swiftly moving bike paths. Of course, I knew virtually none of this before landing in Germany’s vibrant capital and experiencing it myself.
It’s sort of funny to think about the series of events that led Heath and I to Europe. The whole trip was practically born from a drunken happy hour (as if there is any other kind) with my female soul mate Melissa. She and hubby Nick were about to depart for a 5-month bike tour through the European country side before relocating permanently to Seattle. Rather than lament her loss, Melissa and I instead tipsily planned a reunion for the four of us in Germany. I promptly returned home and recounted our plan back to Heath. Not for approval, mind you– we don’t have that kind of relationship–but for the sake of healthy discussion. For what it’s worth, Heath’s and my original plan for summer travel was to do a relatively cheap backpacking excursion in the Rockies so that we could save the big bucks for some much needed electrical upgrades. Sexy, I know, but as many homeowners know, when you’re on a budget it’s touch sometimes to relinquish your liquid assets on a plane ticket over something with some actual ROI. After crunching the numbers and recounting our promise to ourselves that we wouldn’t start our human family until we’d traveled together to 3 continents, we both decided now was as good a time as any to cross the pond and butcher a few languages. A few clicks through priceline.com later, an itinerary to and from Berlin was sitting in my inbox. A few Rick Steves episodes after that, a course was charted and we had a regular old European road trip on our hands.
We got to Berlin on a Friday morning a little after 7 o clock. Despite a raging case of jet lag, we walked from our Hauptbonhof adjacent hotel to Brandenburg Gate so Heath could take his requisite history teacher selfie, and so we could begin our stroll down Unter den Linden. Apparently, the popular promenade was once shaded by centuries old Linden trees, which Hitler had removed during his burgeoning political career and replaced with German flags. The uproar from Berliners was so great that the flags were removed and the trees replanted. Interesting priorities there, pre World War II Germany. Normally, the boulevard is teaming with tourists and ritzy cafe patrons, but we were there before most shops had opened and had nearly the entire boulevard to explore by ourselves.
We walked passed Hotel Adlon (of Michalel Jackson baby-dangling fame), Humboldt University (where academic legends like Albert Einstein have taught), a statue of Frederick the Great (rumored lover or famed French philosopher Voltaire), and a handful of kitsch Ampelmännchen souvenir shops before arriving at Museum Island.
Museum Island is a great part of town, home to five internationally renowned museums like the National Gallery, the Bode Museum and others. Despite a mean case of jet lag setting in and our traveler’s high adrenaline increasingly wearing off, we spent the 16 Euro admission to pass through the German History Museum. The museum beautifully chronicles the region’s history from roughly the middle ages to present. We circled the collection through WWII before finally succumbing to our jet lag and heading back toward the hotel, by way of one quick stop for a taste of currywurst.
A long nap and much-needed shower later, we walked to nearby Zollpackhof Biergarten for libations and grilled meats. Beer and patio lovers we are, the Berlin beer scene is one I would very much like to reproduce in America. Austin has a few biergarten imitations (Bangers, Scholz) but none that capture the laid back atmosphere of the German gartens. You order at the counter, choose your own seat, and enjoy the environment without interruption or pressure to be hasty. It’s worth noting that unlike Texas’ outdoor atmospheres, Berlin’s biergartens are free of mosquitoes, and the temperature maxes out at comfortable 85 degrees: warm enough to enjoy a cold one, but not so hot that you’re patting your arm pits down with paper napkins.
We spent a few healthy hours here talking about relationships and conspiring about life. Around 11, we departed from our beer-drenched den of contemplation and headed to Tiergarten–Berlin’s Central Park–for a midnight stroll.
We left Berlin in the morning, only to return a week later.
Next up: Dresden, Prague and Bone Church.
In a nutshell, Seattle is the most accommodating city I’ve every visited. The traffic isn’t bad, the summer weather is mild, the layout is intuitive, the people are disarming and the sea food is mouthwatering. We walked from the space needle, to the aquarium, to the market, to the library, to the museum of history and industry, with relative ease. No one ever pan-handled. No one ever hustled. We never got lost, or too hot, or too bug bitten. The whole Seattle experience epitomized what it is to be pleasant.
Come to think of it, maybe it was too pleasant, eerily so, the stuff of a hipster’s version of Pleasantville. During our 48-hour stay we encountered an epic zombie apocalypse in the city center featuring hundreds of face-painted walking dead enthusiasts, an international beer festival, a 13-hour “Nic Till You’re Sick” Nicolas Cage marathon, and a wooden boat festival, at which we bought matching “Center for Wooden Boats T-shirts”, so we’ve got that going for us.
But even the rowdy stuff wasn’t really rowdy. We walked to a dive bar to get a sip of local attitude, and were met by a city softball team celebrating a victory with a pint, you know, the stuff of Cheers.
There’s more on which to mediate—the view of Puget Sound from our century old b&b; the marvelous way succulents grow like anemones from retaining walls; the unfairly cute manner in which otters eat clams off their tummies. Yes, Seattle was damn near perfect with its sense of humor, slight edginess, easy-going culture and breathtaking surroundings.
Imagine my dismay when I heard that one day, Mt. Rainier is likely to blow the whole place to bits.