Monday, December 31, 2007

Report: The Voyage 2007

It was a simple idea to create another end-of-year summary Report for The Voyage 2007, but it turned out to be a complicated and difficult process. So many great experiences have happened this past year that it was very had to select what to include. Even after paring thousands of photos down to hundreds, then paring those down to dozens, it was still looking like it would take a symphony-length music video to do it justice. In the end, I picked one of my favorite pieces of music from Hobo Jim and let the lyrics guide my selection in a more-or-less chronological order. With sincere apologies to those of you who have been such a wonderful part of The Voyage this year but who are not included in the final cut, I offer you this Report along with my profound thanks for a truly marvelous and memorable year.

Logbook: Last Stop La Spezia

Laststoplaspezia1Thursday was a pretty grueling travel day as it took four trains -- and over 12 hours! -- to complete the Ljubljana-Venezia-Firenza-Pisa-La Spezia route. The two middle trains in Italy ran late which meant I missed my connections and had to improvise along the way. Once again having none of the local language or any familiarity with local ways of doing things added to the complexity. Being the object of attention of an extremely drunk woman of questionable repute throughout one entire leg of the trip pretty much put things over the top. As you can see from my European rail/ferry map, I've had pretty extensive exposure to the milieu since April and have to admit that this was the most exhausting trip of the lot. Upon arrival in La Spezia -- my last stop in Europe! -- at about 10pm I opted for a cab ride to my hotel and barely had enough energy to find some food before crashing.

Laststoplaspezia2I slept in a little bit on Friday and mostly made it a recovery day, but I did venture out enough to get a brief glimpse of the town. Overall, La Spezia, is a fairly compact little city nestled at the base of a moderate coastal mountain and has a mix of narrow, winding pedestrian streets and chaotic vehicular avenues. There is a fairly extensive green space along the waterfront with plenty of statues and places to sit. The fact that the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temperature was moderate made it quite pleasant overall. The harbor is lovely and it is a treat to be near the water again. I did struggle a bit with being out of sync with the clock here, as restaurants all seemed to be closed at what I thought were meal times and shops seemed to be open at quite odd intervals. I chalked it up to still being pretty wiped out from the day before and expected to get in sync in due course.

Laststoplaspezia3The past three days have been "mixed-use" ones for me, fairly well balanced between being inside to handle online stuff and going outside to do exploration and chores. I'm afraid I can't report that I have had much success yet at getting in sync. Shops that are open when I first see them and note their location for later are closed when I return. I think the main problem here is that I tend to be out and about in the middle of the day when the local culture seems to be pretty much shut down for extended lunch. I also have not yet had an easy time of finding a meal, and have been somewhat unimpressed with what I have gotten. Admittedly, I don't understand a lot of what's written on the menus -- and I really don't get the whole first plate, second plate, multiple course thing -- so I'm certainly at a disadvantage to give the cuisine a fighting chance. I did have the good fortune of finding one little cafe where a nice lady in a chef's outfit seemed to understand that I just wanted to eat. She fed me well and I enjoyed the wine that has her picture on the label. If present trends continue, I may just make dining at her place my daily routine!

Laststoplaspezia4I'm afraid I also cannot report that I am growing fonder of La Spezia as my time here goes on. On closer inspection, the city is a little shabby, with a fairly high proportion of moderately run down buildings. There is a lot of construction going on which adds to the messiness level, plus there is trash and graffiti pretty much everywhere. The large colonnaded walkways on the main streets are quite nice and the pedestrian streets are attractive in spots, but the overall impression is not that great. While I can't say that I don't like La Spezia, I can't really say that I like it either. Normally I would chalk it up to experience and move on, but I need to be here for a couple of more days until my ship arrives and I head out to sea. I may make a day trip to the nearby Cinque Terre, but since I've got some "end of year" stuff to handle and a fair amount of preparation yet to do in advance of being at sea -- and possibly completely out of touch -- for 34 days, I will probably postpone that exploration until another time when I will be able to give it more attention than a quick, one-day glimpse.

It is now New Year's eve and I'm going to head out to see what's going on. A little bit later I will post a Report I've been working on to celebrate The Voyage in 2007. It has been a fantastic year for me, and I look forward to more great exploration in 2008. I wish you a very happy New Year as The Voyage of Macgellan continues!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Musing: Update re. UK Cameras

You may recall that back in July I posted a Musing entitled "EuroTerror" in which I wrote briefly about the abundance of surveillance cameras in the UK. Well, it seems that not all Brits are taking this enhanced level of "security" in stride. Granted, the cameras involved are those of the "speed" or "traffic" variety, but as Dvorak puts it: "Are we finally seeing a little resistance from the notoriously stoic Brits?" This article in Wired tells the story, and you can see a selection of related photos here. It seems I may have been wrong about the "stiff upper lip" stuff of Britain being "as good a way as any of not letting something you can’t do anything about ruin your daily life." It looks like maybe they can -- and will -- do something about it. Cheers!

Logbook: Correction re. Slovenia

I have just received this helpful bit of history from my good friend Matt in Vienna and wanted to share it as a correction of what I wrote about Slovenia... Thanks, Matt!
"Slovenia was not an Eastern bloc country. As a part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was indeed Communist. However, Tito broke with the Soviet Union early and Yugoslavia belonged, along with, for instance, China, to the club of the Neutral and Non-Aligned Nations during the Cold War. Though Tito tried to steer a course independent of both the US and the USSR, Western culture predominated. For instance, US films were shown on state-run TV in English with Serbo-Croatian or Slovenian subtitles so many middle-class Yugoslavs spoke (and speak) magnificent American English!"
No wonder Ljubljana seemed so "western" to me!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Logbook: Graz - Ljubljana

Friday was "moving day" so I did my usual routine of getting up an going pretty early. Whenever I have been someplace for more than a few days -- like I was in Vienna for almost three weeks -- it takes a little longer than normal to complete the moving process. For one thing, the longer I am someplace the more I inevitably take stuff out of my gear bag and have it scattered around my room and it takes me just a few extra minutes to sort it out and pack it up. For another, I typically become quite friendly with my hosts during longer stays and I happily take a little extra time to say fond farewells. Nevertheless, by 8:30 in Vienna I had packed, had breakfast, checked out, parted company with the Rothensteiners and was walking down Neustiftgasse to the 13A bus for the 30 minute ride to Sudbanhoff. Although I had certainly gotten my money's worth out of my weekly metro card, it was still valid for three more days so I gave it to a nice old lady on the bus who smiled and thanked me like it was a winning lottery ticket. It's the little things that make life particularly sweet on The Voyage!

Grazljubljana1The train ride from Vienna to Graz passes through lovely countryside and among what I believe are the eastern foothills of the Alps. A light dusting of snow in the trees and a modest blanket of snow on the ground made it a beautiful trip, but it was the bright blue sky that gave me some hope I might finally be leaving the bad weather behind me. Sadly, the skies progressively clouded over throughout the three hour ride and by the time I arrived in Graz it was downright dark, cold, blowing and snowing. I found a perfectly satisfactory place to stay right near the train station, checked in and dumped myself as usual, but stood at the window for a few minutes to survey the bleak scene and consider whether I really wanted to go out and explore in it. After due deliberation and a check of the weather forecast -- which promised improving weather -- I decided to stay in and take the afternoon off. (I will admit that being half way through yet another really great Jack Reacher thriller was part of my decision and I had a most enjoyable afternoon finishing it up!)

Grazljubljana2The weather did clear up a bit on Saturday morning and although it was still gray and overcast the temperature was just high enough to melt the snow, so I seized the opportunity and headed out pretty early. Graz, it turns out, is a charming little city. Although much smaller than Vienna, it is big enough to have a lot going on. It also has all the Austrian style and flair without so much of the big-city commercial feeling. There is an efficient little tram system that runs down the main streets and right through the otherwise pedestrian-only malls and shopping streets. Being the last Saturday before Christmas, the city was thoroughly decorated and last-minute shoppers were out in force. I had a really nice walkabout for a couple of hours then stopped for a bite to eat. While I was inside I could see the weather turning bad again and by the time I finished my lunch it was once again dark, freezing cold, blowing and snowing. Thankful for my few hours of decent exploration, I headed back to my room and called it a day. Sunday was a complete disaster in terms of weather, so I only ventured out briefly on a few occasions for meals and a quick trip to the train station to get my onward ticket. Thus, while I only spent about two and a half hours out of as many days actually checking out Graz, I really liked what I saw. I would put it at the top of anyone's list of places to visit in Austria, including my own list for the future.

Grazljubljana3Monday was "moving day" again, but -- due to my very brief time in Graz -- I had neither any extra packing to do nor any fond farewells to attend to. Plus, my train wasn't scheduled to leave until about 10:30 and I was only about 100 meters from the station, so I had a pretty easy, leisurely time of it. As has become my custom to avoid unnecessary last-minute scrambling around on The Voyage, I got to the station about a half hour ahead of my expected departure. The tote board indicated that my train was about five minutes delayed -- a sign of the inclement weather adversely affecting the famously prompt Austrian trains! -- so I had an even longer wait than expected. No worries, I've become quite comfortable with waiting! As you can see in the photo, I had the platform all to myself until just before the train arrived and a small crowd gathered. My seat was in a compartment that I shared with a young Brazilian couple and we talked for a while about various topics, the highlight of which was my sharing the story of my Brazilain visa which completely cracked them up. After a comfortable three hour ride we arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia and I walked about ten minutes toward the old town and found a place to stay. Being the day before Christmas, the place was practically deserted and I got a really good deal! After checking in and dumping my gear I took a brief walk around despite the marginal weather. My first impressions of Ljubljana were very positive and I later called it a day with hopes of decent weather to do some quality exploring.

Grazljubljana4Indeed, the weather on Tuesday was really pretty good and I made the most of it. I spent a few hours in the morning walking all around the attractive -- I would go so far as to say adorable -- old town then hiked up the hill to check out the castle. Because Slovenia is situated at the western most edge of the former Soviet empire -- and right next to Austria and Italy -- it seems to have suffered the least of all the former Soviet republics I have visited. It is very "western" and has a feeling of long standing prosperity. Because it was Christmas day, virtually all of the shops were closed, but many of the old town market stalls were open and selling a wide variety of grilled meat sandwiches and hot spiced wine. I sat on a stool at an outdoor vendor -- under a heater! -- and did my best to sample the local fare. After that I headed away from the old town and out into the newer parts of the city. Although they were far less attractive than the old town area, the newer parts of Ljubljana are far more appealing than other former Soviet cities I have been in recently. Late in the afternoon it got dark pretty quickly and started snowing, so I called it a day after a really enjoyable, solid eight hours of exploration in a city that I would strongly recommend. I went out again for a while today, but the town is pretty well shut down for a second holiday and the weather has been only marginal. Tomorrow morning I will take a train to Venezia, Italy then continue directly to La Spezia. I'm hopeful that the weather on the Mediterranean coast will be better than I have had for what seems like forever on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Logbook: Vienna III -- "The Back Story"

Viennaiii1mapThis Logbook entry isn't so much about what has happened over the past three days as it is about the "back story" of what's been going on for the past three weeks. As I mentioned in a recent post, after almost nine months in Europe I am ready to start moving east again and travel by land is complicated at best and impossible at worst. As a result, I have been trying to arrange sea passage across the Med, down through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean to Australia or New Zealand. Because there are no passenger ships traveling along that route -- or any easterly route -- at this time of year, I contacted a number of companies that specialize in booking passengers on freighters. You may or may not be aware that many freighters have a few cabins on board -- primarily for use by company personnel -- that are sometimes made available to the public.

After an exhausting amount of "back and forth" communication both by email and by phone with folks in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand -- including all of the adjustments for time zones that had me up most of the night a few times -- the best I could come up with was a ship leaving the Med in late-January and arriving in Singapore mid-February. This was far from ideal because it would mean I would have to somehow get across Indonesia by some combination of buses and boats which, according to various sources, is pretty much a bummer. Then I'd have to get to Australia somehow and eventually on to New Zealand, both of which are a lot more complicated than you might expect. If it wasn't the only thing available I wouldn't have even considered it, but circumstances dictated that I say, "I'll take it."

Now, because freighters are not designed for common passengers, they do not have many of the features that typical cruise ships do such as elevators or doctors on board. Thus, the "qualifying" process for freighter travel is fairly rigorous and includes multiple disclaimers, a medical certificate verifying fitness, mandatory medical evacuation insurance and a slew of other paperwork. This kind of stuff really isn't my favorite, but I buckled down and ticked things off the list, each time having to print, fill out, sign and fax back the various forms with the help of my gracious hosts here at the Rothensteiner. Also, because I would be transiting the Suez Canal, a yellow fever vaccination is mandatory and mine just expired. So, one thing on my list was to find a local travel medicine clinic and get a shot. (This probably gives you a clue why I wanted to be in a major city like Vienna to make these arrangements!)

Just as all this paperwork was being finalized, I got a call late at night from Hamish in New Zealand who said that there had been a cancellation on a ship from the Med all the way to New Zealand. It would be departing on January 3rd and arriving in NZ about 34 days later. Did I want it? Well, of course I wanted it. But I already had the lousy Singapore deal in process with a company in the UK. What to do? Hamish graciously advised me to call the UK in the morning and tell them I wanted to change, etc. I did exactly as he suggested and was told that although there was a waiting list for that cabin, I already had "money on deposit" for the other sailing which could be applied and put me first in line. The only catch was that I'd have to fill out entirely different paperwork for a different shipping company and get an Australian visa. By the way, they said, the sailing date is in just a couple of weeks so I would only have a few days to get everything sorted out in time to meet the paperwork deadline. So, having spent a preposterous amount of time with the first round of paperwork before and during Jennifer's visit, I had just the past three days to do most of it all over again. Plus, of course, I had to go to the Australian embassy and get an actual visa in my passport because there is some question about whether the on-line visa would satisfy the requirement.

Viennaiii2rickmersThe bottom line is that I did it. Of course I did it. It's what I do on The Voyage. I figure things out and I make them work. Sometimes it's pretty straightforward, but other times it is not. This time has been "definitely not." But, I can report that on or about January 3rd I will be sailing from La Spezia, Italy and arriving somewhere in New Zealand in early-February, about 34 days later. The vessel pictured here is my ride and I have been advised that it is a "good ship." I have also been advised that I have a single cabin port side on E deck and depending on how high the containers are stacked I may or may not have a view out my porthole window. Besides that, I really don't know much except that I'm headed in the right direction on a pretty much perfect route. I'll fill you in on details as I find them out, but you now know as much as I do. Stay tuned!

With all these arrangements finally in place, I am ready to head out of Vienna after a really nice, productive visit. I have enjoyed reacquainting myself with this fabulous city, reconnecting with my good friend Matt and sharing a really great week with Jennifer. Tomorrow morning I will catch a train to Graz, Austria for a couple of days to briefly check out that city which is so highly recommended by so many folks. From there I'm going to make a hop to Ljubljana, Slovenia for a quick look around then continue on to Italy. I hope to stop in Venezia for a couple of days on my way to La Spezia, but I won't know for sure until I get the low down on final sailing schedule from the port agent next week. So, I've got a week or so of pretty fast moving ahead of me, then a month at sea with nothing to do except stare at the water... or maybe at a stack of containers! Color me happy, though, because not only am I back in motion headed east but I've got a long sea cruise ahead of me! Woohoo!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Haircut Chronicle: #11 - Vienna, Austria

Hc11vienna1 Hc11vienna2 Hc11vienna3

#11 - December 19, 2007, Vienna, Austria. My last cut in Poland was such a disaster that I let my hair grow out until I couldn't stand it anymore. I shopped around for a salon here in Vienna until I found Petra who speaks pretty good English. I explained my situation and the disaster of with my last three haircuts and what happens when it's cut too short on top, and, and, and... She seemed to really understand and I was encouraged when she went to work with scissors not clippers. Sure enough, she cleaned up the sides and the back and took practically nothing off top. Hooray! I know it's hard to tell from the photos, but my hair is much, much better and almost back to the way I really like it. Finally, some relief from the angst of the "Haircut Chronicles." Cost: 17 Euro ($25)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Musing: Vienna -- Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

This musing is by Jennifer...

Viennajennifer1I arrived in Vienna and it was cold and rainy and I realized that besides barely making my plane that morning I had done little in the way of preparation for this trip. I had been so preoccupied with finishing up school, and then making it to the airport in time, that when I showed up in Vienna my first thought was "Oh, I'm what?" With my first voyage in Paris I had a plan -- things to do, places to go, objectives that I acted upon -- so even wandering around the streets of Paris became a little mission of its own. For Vienna I had no plan, I had no list, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted to "take from" this trip. In short, I arrived in Vienna and felt a little out of my element. Able to function, not that intimidated of getting from place A to place B, but I felt that I lacked direction -- I didn't feel as involved with Vienna as I had been in Paris.

Viennajennifer2German was harder for me to pick up than French had been, and the dreary weather made wandering about all day unpleasant. I decided that I should figure out what Vienna was "all about," and so I took a look at the mountain of brochures in the hotel and plotted out my next "plan of attack." I compiled a list, not a massive list but a list nonetheless, of museums and sights and foods to explore; I was determined that I would experience the "true" Vienna, so help me. And so that's what I did: I took a tour of Schonbrunn, I tasted Wiener Schnitzel and Sachertorte, I saw Klimt's paintings in museums, I stepped foot in Beethoven's and Mozart's apartments... and it was great, but I found that that's not what traveling is about for me. For the most part, I had the most fun in the "getting there" rather than in the "arriving there." Wiener Schnitzel and Sachertorte... basically country-fried veal and chocolate cake. Even Beethoven's museum turned out to be two rooms of plaques on the walls and a xeroxed copy of the Heiligenstadt Document. But even if the thing itself turned out to be a bust, that didn't demean my experience of being there -- I was looking out the window of Beethoven's apartment, I was looking at his piano. In fact, without traveling out to the boonies of Vienna to get to Heiligenstadt, I would never have figured out the buses, eaten a kabob outside the station, and drank coffee in a retirement center because the museum was closed for lunch. To me, the experience as a whole turned out to be the fun part. It was going to a museum and being more awe-struck by the architecture of the palace than the superb collection of Renaissance paintings, it was wandering through the village square of Bratislava and deciding to get sausages from the stands and then go inside for hot chocolate that turned out to be chocolate soup, it was playing "metro roulette" and getting off at a random station to walk along the Danube even though it was cold and raining, it was meeting my uncle's friend Matt and going to a Turkish restaurant in the district of Vienna he termed "Mesopotamia," it was going to a movie theatre and having a fine dining experience of chips, chocolate, and red wine.

Viennajennifer3So I began to think that maybe I was going about this whole traveling thing the wrong way. I cannot plan my way into experiencing a city, and brochures are useful only to a point. It doesn't matter that I spent a week in Vienna. It doesn't matter what I did or didn't see, what I did or didn't do, what I did or didn't learn. It matters that I went, figured things out, and had a ball doing it. Traveling, for me, really emphasizes that people are the same anywhere you go. They can speak German and have lived next to a Hapsburg palace for generations, but they still have the same hopes and fears and basic needs, and 9 times out of 10 will give you help if you ask with a smile. I had fun and I saw some really cool stuff and I went a lot of places, but this time I didn't compile a checklist. Or, if I did, I stopped checking things off. I learned to react to the unexpected and be flexible with the day ahead. You want soup and get pot roast instead? No problem. You go out to the soup restaurant and it's closed? Falafel sounds good. It's snowing the day you wanted to go out to Schonbrunn? How about Friday. You make a massage appointment and arrive at some guy's apartment who doesn't speak any English? Well, you get a massage. Turns out that a day drip to Frankfurt means a 13 hour train ride? Well, Bratislava is only an hour away. You can't make this stuff up, it's just what ends up happening and it ended up making my trip so enjoyable. It was great. Unforgettable. Another voyage.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Logbook: Vienna II -- Jennifer, Opus 2

Viennaii1My niece Jennifer and I have had another great week together on The Voyage here in Vienna. Although our time together was somewhat hampered by inclement weather, we really made the most of it. On the particularly bad weather days we explored indoor spaces like the fine arts museum pictured here. Truly one of the most astonishing buildings you will ever enter, it's hard to say which is more impressive, the structure or the collection. As she posed for this picture on the grand staircase, Jennifer said, "It's good to be the empress!" Indeed! The rest of the museums and indoor places we visited -- like Mozart's apartments, the House of Music, the Spanish Riding Academy, etc. -- paled a bit by comparison, but we had fun checking them out anyway. To say that there is a lot of art and culture in Vienna is an understatement of epic proportion. You are literally surrounded by it and it is fun just to walk around and take in the sights.

Viennaii2On decent weather days we did outdoor exploration, including visiting soaring Stephansplatz, historical Hofburg and stunning Schonbrunn Palace. Vienna has an excellent transit system that makes covering a lot of ground fast and easy, and Jennifer did her customary job of dominating it. We had "weekly passes" which gave us access to every mode of transportation from subways to streetcars and buses, and we really got our money's worth. One of my favorite excursions was our "Beethoven Day" when we traipsed all over the city to visit some of the master's many domiciles during his time in Vienna. Some of the sites were a little lame, but our finale at his grave was a real highlight and gave me the opportunity to pay my respects to yet another of my personal heroes.

Viennaii3Similar to our time in Paris last summer, we didn't always explore together but we always regrouped for dinner together in the evenings. It would be hard to say that the food in Vienna is great because it seems to consist mostly of meat and potatoes, but it is all edible and satisfying if not very interesting. We had our share of ordering -- or thinking we were ordering -- one thing and getting another, but we just laughed it off and found a way to get by. My friend Matt joined us for a couple of dinners and his local knowledge of places to eat plus fluent German really improved our culinary experience. Not the least of the enhancements to our experience that he was able to provide us were some amazing chocolate desserts that Jennifer somehow forced herself to eat in a true sense of exploration. Way to take one for the team, Jennifer!

Viennaii4Another highlight of our week was "international day" when we took an hour long train ride to nearby Bratislava, Slovakia. My intention was that Jennifer would be able to experience as I have both the routine nature of crossing borders in Europe and the surprising differences between neighboring cultures. It worked perfectly. With worldly, magnificent Vienna fresh in her mind, we rolled into Bratislava with its very different, former Soviet feeling. Instead of being surrounded by countless grand marble buildings, we were amidst standard issue concrete construction. In place of the hustle and bustle of Viennese crowds, we were practically alone on the streets. I mean no disrespect to Bratislava -- it is a wonderful little city of which I am very fond -- but it is so vastly different from nearby Vienna that one really gets a different perspective that I was glad Jennifer got to experience. After a lengthy walk around town we made our way into the old town square where we stuffed ourselves with tasty sausage sandwiches followed by a massacre at a chocolate shop. Once again, Jennifer did her duty and suffered through it in the name of exploration.

Viennaii5If you look at the photo log, you will see a pretty good representation of all the exploration -- and eating -- we did this past week, but I'm afraid you won't see the best part of our time together: the many lengthy and lively conversations we had on a wide variety of topics. Jennifer will be embarrassed that I'm writing this in public, but she has such a bright mind, keen insights and a brave approach to the unknown that she is a delight to be with. She is an extremely good traveler and a fine co-explorer. I think this photo of her waiting for the metro to take her back to the airport speaks volumes. We had such a great time together that I think we were both a little sad it was over. One moment that particularly touched me was when she said, "Being on The Voyage with you is the best. I can't believe more people haven't done it!" Thanks for that, Jennifer, I feel the same about being with you. You are welcome back anytime.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dram: Beethoven's Birthday!

In honor of Beethoven's 237th birthday I am posting this little video Dram from Vienna, starring my niece Jennifer who has once again proven herself to be an outstanding co-explorer on The Voyage! Happy birthday to Beethoven, and thanks to Jennifer!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Logbook: Vienna I

Viennai1I was up and out really, really early on Monday morning in Krakow for a dark and very cold walk to catch my last Polish train out of the country and on to Vienna. As I have written many times by now, I have very much enjoyed my time in Poland and I am very fond of both the country and its people. I would like to visit again at length some time, but it will not be in winter. The weather is just too harsh and unpredictable to be enjoyable or practical. I have also enjoyed my many experiences on Polish trains, and despite their idiosyncrasies I can recommend them. They never fail to amuse and my last experience was no different. A couple of hours out of Krakow we crossed the Czech border and pulled into the first station then waited while "the man" boarded to examine our documents. While this was going on, the last car -- in which I and just a few others bound for Vienna were seated -- was disconnected from the rest of the train and left by itself at the station platform. A few minutes later, "the man" left the train and the platform, followed by the conductors and everyone else who had been in the vicinity. The few of us who remained sat in the silent, cold, darkened car for about half an hour before I and a couple of others decided to wander out onto the platform to take a look. As you can see, it is a bit of an odd site -- and an odd feeling -- to see your "ride" sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere while you wait and hope that the "system" is going to work and remember to pick you up for the rest of your journey! Sure enough, within the next half hour another train pulled up, hooked us up and took us through the Czech countryside for a couple of hours to a crossing point into Austria and then on into Vienna.

My friend Matt -- whom I have known since we went to college together 30 years ago! -- lives in Vienna and had very helpfully set me up in a charming little hotel/apartment that is owned by some of his friends. So, after an easy bus ride from the train station, I was happily checking into my new home, which consists of a bedroom/sittingroom, a bathroom and even a little efficiency kitchen! After dumping my gear, I hit the streets, checked out the neighborhood and found a grocery store where I bought some basics. As usual after a long travel day, I was ready to call it an early night and have a good, long sleep in my new home.

Viennai2Vienna is a city in which I am very comfortable. I think this is partly because I have been here a few times before, but mostly because it is a city that just makes sense to me. So, I enjoyed walking the streets at various times this week while I worked on one of my primary objectives for while I am here, which is to arrange the next major segments of my transportation on The Voyage. I'll save the details for when I get it worked out, but for now I will just say that after eight months in Europe I'm feeling ready to start moving on again. If you look at the map, you will see that land travel heading east from where I am now is very complicated at best and downright impossible at worst. So, I'm working on arranging sea passage through the Suez canal and that is not easy at this time of year either. I really pounded the pavement trying to find a travel agent who could help me, but was completely unsuccessful. Thankfully, there are an ample number of Starbucks to keep me fueled up, something that I will admit I have missed during my time in Poland and the Baltics.

Viennai3Having a good friend like Matt who lives here is certainly another big reason Vienna is such a comfortable place to be, and I have really enjoyed catching up with him. We had dinner on Tuesday night and I accompanied him to a class he teaches at a local college on Wednesday night. Yesterday we took a walk in the famous Vienna Woods -- where I took this photo of him standing next to a remnant of a WWII fortification -- and we had dinner together again last night. Throughout, we have enjoyed the same kind of lively and philosophical conversations that first brought us together in college, proof once again of the old adage that with good friends you can pick up right where you left off no matter the time in between. I look forward to spending more time with Matt over the next week or so while I am here and to using him as the invaluable resource he is for what's what in Vienna!

Viennai4I was up and out early this morning to catch the metro and the train out to the airport to meet my niece Jennifer who has flown in from the States to spend her second week on The Voyage. We had such a good time in Paris that she has decided to give it another shot and I am delighted to have her here. After making our way back to the hotel we got her checked into her room and had a little breakfast while catching up on everything since we last had the chance to talk at length. This afternoon we did a little wandering around to give her a very brief overview and orientation of Vienna then stopped in a cafe for a real meal. We both were in the mood for some nice hot soup, but the chef explained to us that something else on the menu was "the best" so we acquiesced. A few minutes later, two plates of meat and potatoes showed up, giving Jennifer the opportunity to get into the culinary swing right away. After that, she toughed it out for a few hours more but finally gave in to jet lag and has hit the rack, hoping to get herself into shape for taking the lead on our Vienna co-exploration starting tomorrow. So, stay tuned for the next update on that, my transportation challenges and whatever else happens next on The Voyage of Macgellan!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Logbook: Krakow

Krakow1While there really isn't any such thing as a "usual" week on The Voyage, I'm comfortable in reporting that this week has been "unusual." It started out pretty normal as I arrived in Krakow last Sunday afternoon, made the ten minute walk to my hotel and did the routine of checking in, getting settled and taking it easy after a full day of travel, but from then on it was different. I woke up Monday morning to find a pretty good blizzard in progress outside my window, but since I'm not in the habit of letting the weather hinder my exploration I got suited up and went out to have a look around the area. The snow wasn't so bad, but the wind and freezing rain were kind of a bummer so I toughed it out for an hour or so then found a nice place for lunch and went back to my room to spend time online. As you know from the "Universal Health Care" posting below, the slightly stuffy head I went to bed with on Monday night was a raging cold on Tuesday so I declared my first "sick day" on The Voyage and spent it quietly indoors, bundled up and watching movies on my beloved Mac. At the time I decided it was almost just as well because the weather was still horrible. On Wednesday my head was a little less of a mess, but my cold had settled into my chest so I spent another day indoors, only venturing out to join my friends Elke and Gustavo for some spicy Indian food that was both therapeutic for my cold and a delicious alternative to the meat and potatoes Polish fare I've been living on for some time now. Again, the weather was really pretty awful, so I didn't feel like I missed much.

Krakow2On Thursday morning I was feeling better, not 100% but still much better by comparison. I met up with Elke and Gustavo again and we went to the famous salt mines just outside of town. The tour was pretty interesting, including a descent of almost 500 feet down into the mines and a lengthy route through a variety of small tunnels and huge caverns, with intricate carvings and statuary almost everywhere you look. Our guide was speaking in English, but her quiet, high pitched voice did not carry that well and her Polish accent made it a little hard to hear and understand. Elke is completely fluent in English but it is a second language for Gustavo so she and I had some fun acting as interpreters for him from time to time. I tried to take some pictures, but the ambient light was too low and the flash just washed everything out, so there's only this one marginal shot for you to see. All in all it was an interesting tour and I would recommend it if you're ever in Krakow. If nothing else, it was a chance to do something besides sit inside and wait for the weather to clear.

Krakow3I was feeling better still on Friday morning, but the weather was worse than ever, so I decided not to push it an just hung out. Saturday morning dawned a little better and I went across town to have breakfast with Elke and Gustavo in their truck which serves as both their home and headquarters for their global journey. As you can tell, I spent a lot of time with them this week and I really enjoyed their company. They are very bright, energetic and fun, and it was a nice change to be able to talk at length with a couple of fellow voyagers who really know what long-term, long-distance travel is all about. It was a fortunate coincidence that we happened to be in Krakow at the same time, and I look forward both to keeping in touch with them as we go our separate way and to the possibility of meeting up with them someplace else in the world. Good luck, my friends!

Krakow4This morning, finally, the weather had cleared and I was feeling pretty much back up to par. I headed out early and made the most of the mild, sunny day to walk for hours through the Old Town, past Wawel Castle, through the old Jewish Quarter and at length along the Wisla River. Krakow really is a lovely city and it is a delightful, easy place to be. If you want to visit Poland, Krakow is by far the best place to start your experience. The fresh air really did me good and by mid-afternoon I was feeling almost all better and happy about my brief but high quality exploration. So, to sum up, I have been in Krakow for a week but only really explored it for a day. I've had my first illness of The Voyage and I've spent far more time than normal with other people. It has been an "unusual" week. Early tomorrow morning I will conclude my exploration of Poland and catch a day-long train to Vienna. Usual or unusual, the next starts now or maybe sooner!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Dram: Trumpetus Interruptus

Legend has it that during a Tatar raid on Krakow, a guard watching from the tower of Mariacki Church in the Old Town center saw the invaders approaching and took up his trumpet. Sadly, his alarm was cut short by an arrow through the throat. Today, every hour on the hour, he is honored by a trumpeter who plays the sombre hejnal melody, halting abruptly at the point he was supposed to have been hit!