Day 1: LAX to Madrid, Madrid to Tel Aviv

Today marks the first day of the trip! Most of the action is going to be dominated by some long flights; LAX to Tel Aviv with a layover in Madrid. I’ll be flying an airline that is new to me: Iberia Airlines.

This morning was spent with some last-minute shopping and then repacking everything. While shopping, we ran into one of my cousins and her two small kids; I had never met the kids before do it was pretty exciting for me. After I finished packing, my mom and I had to have lunch at In-N-Out.

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Once I got to LAX, I met up with the group of strangers and waited in line to check in. Even though I arrived at the airport around 2pm, we didn’t start going through security until around 4. I was able to grab some food from the 800 Degrees location in the international terminal (who knew?) and eventually we went to the gate. For some reason (my guess is that Iberia only operates one flight out of LAX), the plane did not actually park at the gate. We got on a bus and then drove across the tarmac to this weird building that consisted only of a ramp and air bridge.

On the plane, I had a bit of seat drama: a French woman who spoke very little English was sitting in my seat and was insistent that I switch with her husband sitting elsewhere. Eventually she involved the flight attendant, who helped her convince a person sitting next to her husband to switch and the issue was resolved.

Apparently the travel agent who booked the travel for Birthright requested kosher meals for everyone, so I had another experience with the strangeness that is kosher airline food. The dinner of chicken and rice was a bit less than pleasant as the chicken was super dry. When we got closer to landing, the lunch of deli meat with humus on challah was much better.

The plane had a pretty good entertainment system, so I was able to watch two movies: Ex Machina and Ocean’s Twelve. I had heard good things about Ex Machina, so I went into it with high expectations. Unfortunately it falls into the same trap as many other robot stories in pop culture: robots are evil/untrustworthy/uncaring and want to kill some/all humans. I tend to prefer Asimov’s approach to robot stories, where he constructs a set of rules and then tells stories within the framework of those rules. Ocean’s Twelve, which I had not seen before, was a lot of fun.

Our layover at the Madrid airport was 9 hours. Not much of it is terribly remarkable, though we did start to play some ice-breaking games and bond as a group.

Eventually, we got on the plane to Israel. They fed us (another) kosher dinner (which was better than the first) and I was able to get another few hours of sleep on the plane.

The arrival into Tel Aviv recalled the departure from LAX; the plane parked somewhere away from the terminal and we took a bus to get back to the airport. Passport Control was fine for me (and for most of the group), but one person got detained at the airport. He came to meet us several hours later and none of us understand the reason for his detention. Once through Passport Control, we grabbed our luggage and freshened up in the airport bathroom. We then grabbed some breakfast and left the airport for our first day in Israel.

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Day 0: SEA to LAX

20150616_120645Today is the day before my trip to Israel on Birthright starts. I’m pretty excited to go back to Israel; the last time I was there was when I was 16. I’m traveling with a group of strangers, so this is pretty similar to my last extended travel adventure.

I’m writing this while sitting on SoundTransit’s Central Link light rail, which provides service from Downtown Seattle to SeaTac airport. Since I moved out of Belltown, the Link is no longer within walking distance, so I took a bus from Ballard to Pioneer Square earlier in the morning. I was able to pack pretty light, so I only have my backpack and a duffel bag to take to LA. After my flight lands at LAX, I’ll be taking the FlyAway bus to Van Nuys where my parents can pick me up.

I hope I havent forgotten anything in Seattle!

Day 18: Rome, Vatican City

The last touring day.

We woke up this morning and met our tour guide for the day, Antony, in the lobby of the hotel/basilica. He distributed radio receivers and earbuds so that we could hear him on the tour without any shouting. As a system, it worked pretty well.

We left on the bus for our scheduled tour of the Colosseum. Arriving, it looked a bit different in the day from the way it looked at night: it was illuminated by the sun instead of by spotlights.

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Without waiting for too long, we were admitted to the inside of the Colosseum. Antony told us quite a bit about the history of the Colosseum (including the fact that it was not originally called “the Colosseum”) and then set us loose to look around. I spent some time in the museum on the second floor before going out into the interior. I got a lot of great pictures including the only surviving stone seats as well as continuing archeology.

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Following our visit to the Colosseum, we left for Rome’s city hall and saw one of the earliest surviving bronze statues. After grabbing some water, we did not go to the Forum (as it was too hot), but were led to an overlook to see a good view of the city and some ruins.

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We then got back on the bus and went to the Vatican. Antony took us inside St. Paul’s and I was pretty impressed by the size and decorations. I thought my mom would really like the dome above the altar.

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Antony left us after St. Paul’s, so a few of us decided to go through the Vatican Museum and see the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museum was long and they made you walk through the whole thing before getting to the chapel. When we got to the chapel, I was disappointed by the total lack of crowd management; it was jam-packed and every 30 seconds the employees would be yelling “no pictures, no pictures!”

After grabbing a quick lunch, a few of us went out in search of the catacombs. Unfortunately, we were given bad directions and by the time we asked someone more knowledgeable, the catacombs were closed.

Dinner was at a traditional Roman restaurant, complete with live music. While we ate our (really salty) food and drank our wine, we were serenaded by a guitarist who spoke very little English. It was fun to see everyone and sad to think that this was our last meal together as a complete group.

When we returned to the hotel, a large group of people went on the roof. While looking out at the city, we said our goodbyes and enjoyed the company of everyone for the last time.

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Day 17: Florence, Rome

We awoke this morning and went downstairs for breakfast. EuroPython (a conference about the Python programming language) was going on at this hotel, so I was able to easily see the people present for the conference. After breakfast, we all boarded the bus bound for Rome.

Along the way we stopped for food at a gas station/rest stop. This place was a little weird in that you paid for your food, then brought the ticket over to where the food was given out. I paid for a slice of pizza, but when I got back to the food area the last slice was being given away. The woman behind the counter quoted 10 minutes of waiting, and since I had 20 minutes before I needed to be back on the bus, I consented. Ten minutes later, no pizza, and an updated quote of 15 minutes. I declined and there was some confusion. I ended up with a plate of penne in marinara sauce with about 2 minutes left before I needed to be on the bus. Bolting some down, I ran outside for the bus and was very unsatisfied with my lunch experience.

Eventually, however, we arrived in Rome. We’re staying in a hotel connected to a Basilica, which is pretty unusual. My guess is that the rooms used to be used for people living at the church, but that’s only a guess. My room is decent even if it does appear old. I think this hotel has the second-best shower of the trip, behind the hotel in Lucerne. We had some trouble with the safe, but the front desk was able to resolve it.

Meeting in the lobby, we decided to head out into the city. This marked our fourth Metro and seemed to be reasonably nice. Rome’s Metro consists of only two lines: A and B. Line A has modern cars with air conditioning, automated announcements, and screens showing the upcoming stop. Line B has fairly old cars literally covered in graffiti with none of the modern features found on Line A. Both lines are powered by overhead wires rather than a third rail; this is the first underground Metro I’ve seen with that configuration.

When we arrived at the Spagna station, we walked out and found the Spanish Steps. After climbing and enjoying the view, we set off for the Pantheon and several fountains. Each of these were nice to look at. I thought that my mother would like to have the Pantheon’s dome in our house, but I’m not sure how it would match the rest of the architecture and decor.

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We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a restaurant advertising happy hour. The food was decent and the waiter was the best one that I’ve had in Europe, so I actually left him a tip (tipping in restaurants is not really part of European culture). After dinner, I finally tried my first Italian Gelato, which was quite good.

We then decided to check out some of the other historical sights while it was dark out. After a quick Metro ride, we arrived at the Colosseum. Seeing it at night, in real life, was as mind-blowing as seeing the Eiffel tower.

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After looking at the Forum from a distance, we journeyed back to the hotel and turned in for the night.

Day 16: Venice, Florence

Today we woke up, boarded the bus, and left the Venice area for Florence.

After a reasonably short bus ride, during which I read my book, we arrived at our hotel in Florence. Since we arrived before 3:00, we were not able to check in, so we left our luggage and headed out for a tour of the city.

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We met our tour guide, a woman named Florence, a little ways from the hotel. She lead us around on a short walk to the three main squares of Florence. She told us about the Medici family who used to rule and how Florentine culture was greatly influenced by how much the Medicis valued art. We saw a replica of David mounted where David originally stood as well as much other statuary around the city. Our tour ended at the Duomo, which is the third-largest cathedral, built in the 13th century.

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After our tour ended, I wandered inside the cathedral. It was relatively plain compared to the outside so as to limit distraction to worshipers. We then decided to climb up the 414 steps of the bell tower.

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The ascent was reasonably short, but I was still glad to get to the top. The view was pretty nice, though it wasn’t quite as high as the Eiffel Tower.

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Returning to the hotel, I checked in. There was some trouble with the room key, but after several visits to the front desk it was resolved. Harris got back from watching the Wimbledon final, and we went down to dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Dinner was a buffet, so I had my fill. A waiter asked me what kind of beer I wanted and gave me the options of German or Italian. I chose German, so of course he brought me some Italian beer. However, it was fine so I drank it anyway.

At 10:00, most of us met downstairs to go to Space Electronic Discoteque. A short walk later and we were there, along with a card for a free drink. I ordered a Rusty Nail, but I was instead served Grand Marnier and Canadian Club (which was actually alright, though not what I had originally intended to drink). Once I finished my incorrect drink, I went back and had to teach the bartender how to make a real Rusty Nail.

Eventually, I finished my last drink and walked back to the hotel.

Day 15: Austrian Lake District, Venice, Italy

Today was our last day in a German-speaking country. After waking up at a ridiculous hour, we were on the road by 6:00 AM.

Carmine made surprising time, and we arrived outside Venice before noon. At the harbor, we boarded a boat bound for Murano, Venice’s glass-blowing island. Somehow the Italian boat company screwed up and put us on the wrong boat, so we turned around in the middle and headed back for the harbor. After finally getting on the right boat, we arrived in Murano.

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Our first stop was a glass-blowing factory. We watched a 70 year old man blow a vose and then sculpt a horse in molten glass. The demonstration was impressive, but I was disappointed in how quickly it was over. We then spent another 45 minutes in the factory store looking at all the glass.

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Getting on another boat, we headed for the main part of Venice. Jamie led us to Piazza San Marco and set us loose.

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Our group decided that food was our first priority, so we went out looking for a reasonably-priced restaurant. We ended up in one, but it wasn’t reasonably-priced. Somehow, we missed the fact that a cover fee was charged for anything ordered a la carte so we ended up paying more than expected and left very disappointed.

Our large group then split in smaller groups. Neither Harris nor I had anything in particular that we wanted to see in Venice, so we were content just wandering around. One of the girls in our small group decided that she wanted to find the McDonald’s, because it had a free restroom.

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We got thoroughly lost in Venice, but did end up seeing the Rialto bridge and taking great pictures of the view before finally finding the McDonald’s. Everyone made use of the facilities, and then it was time to head back to San Marco for our Gondola ride.

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Navigating back to San Marco was significantly easier and took about five minutes. Jamie then led us to the Gondola service where we boarded the little boats.

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Our Gondola person didn’t sing, unfortunately, but he did take us on a nice ride through Venice. I ended up sitting at the bow, facing backwards, so I didn’t get the best view all the time. However, it was still fun.

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Throughout this trip, I’ve been struck by how different the architectural styles are from anything we have at home. In Venice in particular, everything is smushed together and claustrophobic. There are no roads wide enough for cars; everything is either foot-traffic or boats in the canals. It certainly was cool, but I don’t think I would ever want to live there.

When our ride was over, we hung out in San Marco for a while longer before boarding our boat back to the mainland. A short ride on the bus and we ended up at our hotel.

The hotel was pretty confusing; our key was mislabeled and we ended up walking the entire hotel before finding our room. Once we got there, we were confused by why the lights wouldn’t turn on. I noticed a smart-card reader inside the room and figured I’d see what it did, so I stuck our key there. The lights came on! Then, after about a minute, they all went out. It took a few repetitions of this before Harris suggested that the key must remain in the reader for the lights to stay on. Once we tried that, everything functioned as expected.

Carmina’s friend owns a restaurant nearby, so he was able to set up a deal for us with a fixed menu. €13 gave us a salad, a good pizza, and some decent beer. After dinner, Harris and I went back to the room and passed out.

Day 14: Alpine Center

Today, Harris and I slept in until 11:00.

When we finally awoke, we walked over to the supermarket in search of something to eat. I ended up with a cereal called CiniMinis purporting to be similar to Cinnamon Toast Crunch while Harris grabbed some Greek yogurt and grains.

At 1:00, everyone met in the lobby and boarded the bus to go white-water rafting. While we were on the bus, it alternated between drizzling, pouring, and not raining at all.

We arrived, grabbed really tight wetsuits, and drove out to the river.

White-water rafting was fun, except for our Austrian instructor. Somehow, Harris and I ended up in the boat with the angry, moody one. For the first half of the river, he wouldn’t let us paddle at all; for the second half, he made us paddle the entire way. The other boats had a much more normal experience. However, even the evil instructor couldn’t take the fun away from jumping in the river and letting the current carry you downstream.

We got back to the hotel and pretty much just chilled for the night. Dinner was more Americanized: roast chicken and french fries. After dinner, I cracked open my bottle of Austrian wine and shared it with people in the hotel bar.

The label on my wine was entirely in German and is reproduced here:

zweigelt
lieblich
burgenland

Wuerzig lieblich und harmonisch wie reife Zwetschken.
Ein koestlicher Begleiter zu Palatschinken und Mohnnudeln.
Ideal bei 16-18 C.

Wegenstein Lieblich: Das ist feine Weinqualitaet aus den bekannten Weinbauregionen Oesterreichs. Traditionelle heimische Sorten, fruchtsuess ausgebaut und von perfekter Trinkreife.

After plugging it in to Google Translate, it makes a little more sense to an English-speaker:

zweigelt
sweet
Burgenland

Spicy sweet and harmonious like ripe plums.
A delicious accompaniment to pancakes and poppy seed noodles.
Ideal at 16-18 C.

Wegenstein Lieblich: That’s fine quality wine from the famous wine regions of Austria. Traditional local varieties of fruit, sweet and perfect extended drinking time.

Day 13: Munich, Salzburg, Alpine Center

Today was another travel day.

We woke up this morning and said goodbye to Germany. We set off in the bus for Salzburg, Austria.

Salzberg is the hometown of Mozart, so we stopped for lunch and Jamie led us to Mozartplatz, where a statue of Mozart is located. We then split up and walked around the city. After grabbing something to eat, I ended up sitting by the river and people-watching for a while.

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Following our visit to Salzburg, we set out for the small Alpine town of Wagrain, where our hotel is located. A relatively short bus ride, and we arrived with a ton of time to spare. Harris and I checked into our room, which has three beds, and then visited the market to purchase some provisions. As we’re in Austria, I figured that I’d buy an Austrian wine (which I still haven’t tried).

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Dinner was somewhat of an awkward affair, as the hotel restaurant was very understaffed and quite unused to dealing with English-speaking Americans. Unfortunately, we were unable to communicate our desire for tap water and ended up having to pay for bottled water.

After dinner, we adventured out into the little town of Wagrain and found a few bars. We ended up at a particular one because it was “Ladies’ night” and women were served a free glass of Prosecco. The beer wasn’t too bad and I had two glasses of Edelweiss beer.

When the bar died down, I left back for the hotel and went to sleep.

Tomorrow: Sleep in, then white-water rafting in the afternoon.

Day 12: Munich

This morning I had elected to go on the optional excursion to Dachau, so we boarded the bus and drove for a while. Arriving at Dachau, we were all given an audio guide and set free to roam. Harris and I each decided to split and spend the time alone with the audio guide and history.

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The whole time I was there, I was thinking about the marked differences between Dachau and the other concentration camp I visited when I was 16: Terezin in the Czech Republic. Dachau was very different, primarily in the fact that it was used for internment, work, and execution while Terezin was used primarily for internment. The audio guide had the expected history about different parts of the site, but also included first-hand recordings by survivors and liberators about there experiences. I thought that those first-hand recordings were the most powerful part of the day for me.

Never again.
Never again.

I was able to explore the whole site: the museum (which used to be the administrative and maintenance building), the barracks, the bunker, the crematorium, the (unused) gas chamber with vents disguised as shower-heads, and the memorial sites. I felt fairly disconnected with the Jewish memorial that was there: it was off-center, smaller than envisioned by the architect, and not well-maintained (the Ner Tamid was not lit). This was entirely unlike my experience with the secret synagogue at Terezin where the Jews interned were still able to hold services and maintain a Jewish identity.

Jewish Memorial at Dachau
Jewish Memorial at Dachau

As with Versailles, the worst part of my experience was the groups of small children who were not yet old enough to truly appreciate the history. I know I was not the only one in our group who was upset that these groups of school children were gossiping loudly, running around, and being distracting while others were actually trying to comprehend the history and magnitude of the devastation that occurred there.

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We returned back to the hotel and grabbed a quick lunch at the restaurant next door. Following lunch, many of the girls went shopping while Harris and I set out to find a laundromat.

We were each able to do a load of laundry while strange German pop music played over the radio and while the non-English-speaking proprietor stared at us menacingly. There was a bit of misunderstanding with how to operate the machines (as everything was in German) and I think we had set the machines on a hotter cycle than was intended. However, I don’t think (as yet) that any of my shirts have shrunk, so we got out of there fine.

After we dropped our clothing off at the hotel, we adventured again toward the English Gardens, by the University in Munich. This was our third underground metro system, and our experience on the U-Bahn was not bad. It actually reminded me of the LA Metro in that there were no turnstiles, but you were supposed to buy a ticket, cancel it when you boarded, and could be stopped for a ticket inspection. The system was cleaner than the Paris Metro even though the trains seemed older.

We took a very round-about way in finding the Chinese Tower of the English Gardens once we debarked from the U-Bahn. However, we did find it eventually and grabbed some food. Sitting under the tower where a brass band was playing while eating dinner was very pleasant.

Finally we headed back to the hotel one final time. Alex invited everyone to drink with him in the lobby, so we sat around a table and hung out for a while.

Day 11: Lucerne, Liechtenstein, Munich

Our first day of four countries.

Today, we had the morning free, so we were able to sleep in a little bit. After waking up at 7:45, Harris and I went downstairs for breakfast and meeting up with Jamie. Jamie took us into the heart of Lucerne around 8:30 and showed us where to look around.

At the hotel, we had been given maps and a voucher for a free spoon from Boucherer, so we all went inside and got our free Rolex spoons. After being distracted by nice watches I can’t afford, we headed toward the Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) and saw lots of swans in the water. Heading back toward the tourist area, we heard the faint sounds of a brass ensemble. We went closer and saw an 11-piece brass band recording a video on the other old wooden bridge of Lucerne. I wasn’t able to find out who they were, but I was able to record a video. They sounded really good.

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I was able to grab some Swiss dark chocolate at the supermarket and we headed toward the Dying Lion. It was really impressive: carved out of stone straight into the side of a mountain and surrounded by a nice pool of water. Most of us made wishes and threw pennies into the water before heading back to the hotel.

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At the hotel, another tour group was having quite a bit of trouble figuring out how to load their buses, so we ended up getting delayed by half an hour. Jamie and Carmina were both very angry. When we were finally able to load our bus, it only took us about five minutes, and we were off to Liechtenstein.

Harris sleeping on the bus to Liechtenstein
Harris sleeping on the bus to Liechtenstein

In Liechtenstein, we all went to the tourist booth to get our passports stamped (which cost €2.50) and then off to find food. I looked around the supermarket for something good to eat, but found no pre-made food that looked appetizing, so I ended up going to a quick restaurant next door.

Vaduz, Liechtenstein castle
Vaduz, Liechtenstein castle

After lunch, we left for our third country of the day: Austria. The Liechtenstein/Austria border was an actual border, so we waited in the bus while Jamie and Carmena dealt with getting us through. Once through, it was a straight shot into our fourth country of the day: Germany.

We arrived in Germany with no stops in Austria. In Munich, we got to our hotel and checked in. Harris and I were given an apartment, complete with a full kitchen. The inclusion of free wifi was also a nice touch.

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For dinner, we went to a restaurant in the Augustiner Breweri. The main dish was pork-based, so I ended up with the vegetarian option: polenta and spinach in a cream sauce. It was pretty tasteless.

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Following our dinner, we went to Munich’s famous Hofbräuhaus where beers are served in steins of 1 liter. I was advised to try the Dunkel, which was delicious. We enjoyed some traditional German brass music along with our beer and had a very fun night.

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Arriving back at the hotel, I made sure to drink a ton of water before falling asleep.