Bus2alps rang in Spring and Easter Break ‘010 with a rocking new Northern Europe exploration, called the Northern Loop, to compliment the warm-weather Greek Spring Break, which itself was enhanced with the addition of a day trip to the island of Aegina. Between Northern Loop, Greek Island Spring Break, and Greek Easter, Bus2alps took 400 excited travelers on their back and broke down the Berlin Wall, ran amuck in a toga, get liberal in Amsterdam, scooter through white and blue houses, and get romantic on the Champs-Elysees. Spring and Easter break spanned a four-week stretch through the middle of March and beginning of April, and proved to be yet another fantastic stretch of traveler and adventure.
Northern Loop Spring Break
I entered the ten-day Northern Loop Spring Break with eager anticipation. This trip was unique, unlike any of our other trips in many facets. Most of the trips I guide are to more obscure, easily manageable cities or locales that do not host a major airport bringing in discount flights with RyanAir and EasyJet. As intricate of a trip as Munich is to guide, it is still rather simplified with an extensive bike tour. This was uncharted waters to me, and exciting intermission in the semester to tackle a more challenging, yet much more exciting and stimulating trip. For the next ten-days, I was to play host with CJ to a band of 58 strong across 4,000 kilometers of Northern Europe, spanning eight countries, and making stops in Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Paris. These cities were the perfect complimentary path to spend a ten-day spring break. Each city rings strongly in the mind of the student traveler as cities with cultural, historical and of course, social significance. Each city played a major role in the course of Western influence of Western history, intertwined through events like World Wars and colonial expansion, yet remain each intrinsically unique.
Arriving at the Santa Maria Novella train station, you could sense the excitement bubbling over as everyone geared up for a long haul, unforgettable trip. We jumped into our second home, our 63-seater bus, our shuttle and portal to Northern Europe for the next ten-days. From these seats we would chart our way over the Alps, through beer-drinking Bavaria, through the Iron Curtain, and back out to the stretches of Northern Germany, plunging into the dykes, tulips, and windmills of the Netherlands, Belgium, across imprinted trenches and the green fields of France, only to hop back over the Swiss Alps and into the Tuscan countryside.
Northern Loop Part 1: Prague
We descended upon Prague ready to take on the world, or at least Communism. It had been some months since I had been to Prague, which was enough time to allow my positive memories to fade. In the meantime, I had spent some weekends in Budapest, allowing the Hungarian capital to plow into my top cities of Europe, jealously dropping the beautiful Prague. I had convinced myself I no longer had feelings for the girl who got away, and the new girl I had settled for had enough redeeming qualities to reduce the previous girlfriend to a vague memory.
I cannot say enough to justify how beautiful Prague is. I am a sucker for architecture, despite knowing absolutely nothing about it (for some odd reason it took me until this weekend to truly grasp what Gothic really meant, despite me loving it and having Wikipedia at my finger tips). We were directed around by our included tour through New Europe of the crowning jewel of the Czech Republic, bringing in much history, funny stories, and a perspective as to just how important Prague has been to the global spectrum (despite our preconceived ideas that any ex-Soviet state must be droll, unimportant, and survive off of sailors drunk off Vodka talking and moving in a robotic fashion). I find Prague interestingly pleasing because it seems as each building has been painting or designed with its own unique décor. No building was replicated, and if it was close, someone painting some unnecessary poem their girlfriend or declaration of independence in order to set themselves free.
After some dawdling around town, and exploring the major sites, the Astronomical Clock (probably the world’s only clock that is actually significant cooler when it is not actually doing anything than when it is functioning), Old Town Square, Charles Bride, and taking a deep look across the river to the Castle, everyone headed back for some rest. Of course we needed rest. Tonight we would take by force the Clock Tower Pub Crawl. The Pub Crawl is renowned for its seemingly unnecessary 1.5 hour open bar of beer, mixed shots, wine, and if that was not already enough, Absinthe. You are either a champ, or unmotivated if you are not seeing baby unicorns prancing around you afterwards. An inspirational speech by crawl organizer, Isaac, sent us into an Absinthe-induced whirlwind of the Prague underground, above ground, and somewhere in between nightlife. With over 200 participants, the biggest pub crawl in its history, we were swinging for the fences in our first at bat of the season.
Somewhat groggy from a night of exploring one of Prague’s most famous concepts, we awoke to catch a glimpse of Prague from above at Petrin Hill and Prague Castle. We woke everyone up with a brisk walk to Petrin Tower, where glamorous views of Europe’s arguably most beautiful city (I say arguably because both sides of my split personality argue separate ways that another city to come on this trip is the most beautiful) were fully obtainable. After spending some time in Prague’s bootleg version of the Eiffel Tower that was purchased on Canal Street, we walked along the hill line to Prague Castle, the biggest of its type, stretching for over 7 football fields. While we were making our way through the castle, Prince Charles who sounds like he is from London, graced us with his presence. I guess he had heard Bus2alps was in town and wanted to see what all the excitement was about. After I gave him my autograph and we let him take his picture with the group, we descended to the Lennon Wall and the artfully tasteful Pissing Statue in the Kafka Museum.
If night one was not an epic enough endeavor, we decided to top it, heading up Lucerna Dance Club for the 80s and 90s video disco night. We spent the night belting out songs that we grew up with (or at least I did), until finally we hit Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” a song we could all enjoy. With that we headed for sleep, eager for what would catch us next.
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With our compass headed for Dresden and onto Berlin, we left Prague, destination East Germany. Something about the concept of East Germany gets me each time I try to imagine Europe 20 years ago. As only a young child when the Berlin Wall came down, I have never had the opportunity to imagine what life really was like in a major city separated.
Most of the allure of going to Berlin is owed to its perception in our head as a major, decadent city of importance to the global scope, that none of us actually know anything about. On the ride I asked many people what they knew about Berlin, and not surprising, despite it being the capital of one of the world’s most powerful countries, and certainly historically influential, no one knows much about it beyond a ten foot wall that pierced through its heart.
After some minor exploration, half of the group set forth on a pub crawl to explore Berlin’s intriguing alternative nightlife. Berlin is a strange city that could not seem to find its own identity. We started the pub crawl in a bar straight out of the Matrix, drinking keg beer from the tap in an empty concrete room with a backyard with twisted metal lying around. We then made our way to underground bar that would remind you of prohibition (and most certainly had the same intentions), to a bar where you needed to ring a doorbell to enter, only to end at some upscale lounge right by the Museum Island. It was an odd night, but quite awesome.
Set up with Nick of New Europe, everyone’s wildest questions and illusions were answered. Easily the most spectacular walking tour, Nick used his archaeological background to invoke an image of life in a torn city that none of us sheltered computer generation people could conceive. The notion that whole families, friends, etc. were separated from each other for decades in order to prevent those who were supposed to embrace, love Communism and never wan to leave, from leaving.
The tour started at the Brandenburg Gate, modeled after the Propylae at the Athenian Acropolis, where we were brought up to speed with exactly how Berlin was created, how World War-I decimated the city’s economy, how easily the Nazi movement slipped into power, and how the total destruction of the city allowed for an easy take-over by the Communists. We then spent the first half of the walking tour scoping the Reichstag, being shown some of the hundreds of monuments dedicated to different races, religions, and ideals persecuted by the Nazi model, and the location of Hitler’s bunker, where he killed himself, which has been so respectfully turned into a parking lot where dogs relieve themselves. After ruing this spot, we headed for the American Sector of town, crossing legally through the Berlin Wall.
As we made our way towards Museum Island, the up-and-coming cultural, and intellectual center of the city, Nick brought us to speed as to how old-Berlin is really a new city now. The city was demolished during World War-II, and the Communists did not do very much to build it back up with their proletarian work and lack of funds, producing the TV Tower and not much more. Since the 1991 fall of the wall, Berlin has undergone its rebirth, and is still an ever-changing city, pulling itself from the ashes. We had come at a great time in Berlin’s history because we were part of these changes and could say we saw it.
After Nick let us loose from his historical recreation of Berlin, most of the group spent the day getting cultural in the numerous museums, including the Pergamon, which contains the famous Altar of Zeus, undertaking the Jewish museum, and climbing the circular observation deck of the Reichstag. We finished the day with a sumptuous Germany feast of greasy foods, pretzels, and beer, before calling it a night. Some people made it out to another night of bizarre Berlin nightlife, while others set their eyes on Amsterdam and called it a night. They would need the rest.
The Netherlands is a country that you can undoubtedly figure out you have just entered without even glimpsing a border crossing. As absurd and nonsensical German may seem, as long as the words may appear, it has nothing on the Dutch language. When you start seeing words that are 20 letters long, consist of three A’s in a row, some TJ, and sounded out sounds like an explosion of disgust, you are in the Netherlands.
As we penetrated the city limits of Amsterdam, we were overcome with a feeling that we had just exited any sense of reality we may have previously thought existed. I have been to Amsterdam before. I love Amsterdam to death, and yet in some eerie subconscious hate it. Amsterdam does not really exist, it cannot. The city radiates happiness, acceptance, no morals, and seediness all at once, and yet remains substantially organized and respectably prosperous. I think this is why I love it and hate it so much. It eats at me, as it eats at everyone, that this can all work so symbiotically here, but for some reason cannot be carbon copied across the world. I know the world would be a happier place. I can see it in the faces of every blonde-haired, obnoxiously large Dutchy we saw. I most of all could see it in the group as unloaded our bus and checked into the eccentric Flying Pig Hostel.
The group enjoyed a night of experienced Amsterdam’s quirky nightlife, frequenting coffee shops, perusing the Red Light District, and dining on culinary classics like FEBO (a vending machine fast food chain serving anywhere from hamburgers to something that resembled an egg roll, was fried, had unknown filling, but tasted delicious). Most of all, everyone marveled in the utter architectural beauty (here I got again plugging my architectural knowledge), of Amsterdam. Due to the tax levies on houses a certain width, and the novel idea to tip all houses forward in order to pulley large furniture, televisions, and donkeys to the top floor, Amsterdam has grown to a series of canals and haunting buildings that leave everything to your imagination. Depending on how well you exploit the liberal nature of Amsterdam, the houses and the canals come alive. This is truly a great place.
Everyone awoke to our early morning guided stroll around the Dutch capital by Joe from New Europe. We explored just how the houses Amsterdam came to what they are, learned how to window shop in the Red Light district, and climbed on the IAMSTERDAM sign. We were then discarded at the Ann Frank House where some took in a somber experience of a brave family. Those unable to stomach the atrocities here carried on back to the Museumsplein and Heineken Experience. Before getting their culture or drink on, everyone was delighted to dine on some incredible breakfast treats, pancakes and waffles, in a country that cannot seem to get one thing wrong. Actually the one thing wrong is its 8 Euro All-You-Can-Eat Chinese buffets that begin with high anticipation, using your fork as a shovel, and end in tears.
For those getting freaky with Van Gogh, they spent an afternoon watching watercolors and surreal paintings grow and change before their eyes. Whether they really were is something only the viewer will ever know. The rest got a true experience at the aptly named Heineken Experience (I know it does not sound original, but believe me, they are spot on with the description). Those who entered capped off their afternoon playing with interactive Heineken inspired games, rides, and absolutely losing their mind. Isn’t Amsterdam wonderful?
Amsterdam is Candyland, Storyland, whatever you want to call it, it does not exist, it cannot exist. This city only distorts the unbelievable trip is has been so far, an intermission that never really occurred between Nazi/Communist Eastern Europe, the Axis of Evil, and Allied Paris. We loaded the bus early in the morning to head off to Paris and romance, nothing short of love beaming from Amsterdam. As I got on the microphone to explain our next drive, I panned the crowd, having never seen so many happy smiles and incessant giggling. I had also never seen so many snacks on a bus ride before.