En Route – Bilbao

I got lucky when looking for flights out of Sevilla and was able to travel to the very north of Spain on the cheap.  For $80, I found myself in Bilbao.

Bilbao hosts a wealth of art and culture, including a prestigious Guggenheim museum.  Unfortunately, the museum was closed.  Instead, I walked through the city with new friend Tom and went out for a lunch of the Basque Country’s alternative to tapas, a tapa-on-bread dish called a pincho.  In the afternoon I took a bus to my final destination in the north, San Sebastian.


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San Sebastian

San Sebastian is a lovely small town next to the ocean on the northern edge of Spain, only an hour or two from the French border.  It is host to the famous San Sebastian film festival, which was taking place during my time there.  (We took the opportunity to go to one of the festival’s films, which was extremely boring).

The city is small, but charming.  It has the “colored buildings with iron bars” look of other Spanish cities, but with the added Basque flavor of the Basque language and a plethora of pincho bars.  I spent my days here surfing and sharing wine and pinchos with friends.  Another highlight was lunch with my friend Maider, who I’d met in Morocco (she lives quite close to San Sebastian).


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On my last night in San Sebastian, I scrambled to find my next stop.  I decided on Valencia!  The next day, I hopped on a Blablacar and made my way.

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After my ferry from Morocco, I arrived in the coastal town of Tarifa.  Tarifa is a port and kite-surfing hotspot.  I stopped for lunch after I arrived and was happy to find that Spanish food was both more varied and better prepared than much of what I’d had in Morocco.  That being said, it was about twice as expensive.  After lunch I spent the afternoon wandering the city and picking up some things at the pharmacy.  That evening I met up with Angelerosa and her mom, who I’d met at my hostel in Tangier.  Angelerosa’s English was quite good, and she started helping me work on my Spanish.  They were kind of enough to give me a ride from Tarifa to the bus station near their home in Chiclana de la Frontera, only a short bus ride from my hostel in Cádiz. 

The next morning, I went to grab some lunch and find transport to Sevilla.


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My days in Sevilla were a good mix of activities for this far in to my trip.  Where earlier on I had a seemingly endless desire for tourism and history, I’ve found that going to another museum just doesn’t have as much to offer me these days.  Instead, I’ve been enjoying waking up late, having a luxurious lunch, doing an activity or two in the afternoon, before taking a siesta.  My evenings in Sevilla were filled with family dinners at the hostel and Spanish beer, shared with plenty of new friends.  As some of my days in the city were a bit slow, I’ll just share a few highlights here.

Highlight 1 – The Aesthetic Beauty of the City

Sevilla is a seriously beautiful city.  It is a sumptuous combination of new and old, with a 1000 year old church sitting next to hip new cafes and shops.  The grey, cobblestone streets and yellow/cream colored buildings make for a beautiful contrast with the clear blue skies.  See below for pictures I took as I wound my way through the old city.


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Highlight 2 – Eating

Spain is often cited as one of Europe’s finest culinary destinations, and I found this to be true in some cases, but less so in others.  I found that walking into a random restaurants (especially in the more touristy areas) would not yield particularly good food.  With some looking, excellent food is available, but that’s true in lots of places.  That being said, I did enjoy some delicious food during my time in Sevilla, with the tapa at Bartolomea in Sevilla being the highlight.  That one I split with my friend Simon, who shared with me the Swiss tradition of snuff tobacco.  The snuff made me sneeze and blow my nose multiple times, and I don’t think I’ll be picking it up as a habit.


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Highlight 3 РLa Plaza De Espa̱a

The Plaza de España is a large, semi-circular plaza that was built in preparation for the a large festival in Sevilla in the beginning of the 20th century.  While this celebration never actually happened, a few incredible buildings remain.  I went to the Plaza three times in total in search of great photos.  A particular highlight was the man making bubbles at sunset.


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Highlight 4 – El Catedral

Sevilla’s old city is host to a tremendous cathedral, with its tower being one of the highest points in the city.  Like many cities in southern Spain, Sevilla was held by Muslim forces during the rule of the Islamic caliphate.  The Muslims built a mosque in the center of the city, with its large minaret serving not only its typical role of helping in the call to prayer, but as a watchtower to assist in the city’s defense.  Upon reconquering southern Spain, the Spanish decided to simply rebrand this mosque into the Cathedral that stands today.  Unlike the church in Cordoba (which you’ll see later in the post), this Cathedral doesn’t bear a strong resemblance to a mosque.  See the pictures below for a look inside.

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Highlight 5 – Las Setas

Another of the city’s great highlights is a huge piece of art meant to act as a sunscreen (southern Spain is HOT).  Due to it’s fungal appearance, it has been nicknamed “Las Setas,” which in Spanish means “the mushrooms.”  One can ascend the statue via an elevator and enjoy a drink and a walk around the top of the structure.


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Highlight 6 – The Alcazar

The city’s final tourist attraction is the Alcazar.  This structure is a palace built on the ruins of a Muslim fortress after the reconquest of Sevilla.  It is full of beautiful patterns, Christian/Muslim fusion decoration, and hosts sprawling gardens that I willingly got lost in for a couple of hours.


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Highlight 7 – Day Trip to Cordoba

My final highlight was the day trip I took to nearby Cordoba with my friend Gene.  We began the day with a lovely lunch, before heading to the Mezquita.  Mezquite, which means Mosque in Spanish, is actually a catholic church built within a mosque.  Like the Alcazar in Seville, a previously muslim building was retrofitted to fit into Spanish society.  The church is truly breathtaking, and has a bit of a “remix” feel in that it fuses different elements into a (mostly) cohesive whole. 

Rather than take our return tickets back to Sevilla as planned, Gene suggested we go check out the local soccer team, who were playing that evening.  Despite it costing us an extra train ticket, this turned out to be a lot of fun.  Even at a small stadium and for a team that is doing quite poorly, the fans went CRAZY every time something was about to happen.  I will say that I enjoyed the match considerably more than I thought I would, and it is certainly better than on television.


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All in all, Sevilla was an excellent way to start off my trip to Spain.  Thanks to everyone I met there!  Next stop, Basque Country.

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Location 1 – Casablanca

After a long, hot bus ride, I found myself somewhere in the middle of Casablanca.  I was alerted by two French girls I met on the bus that the we (the tourists) had all been charged an extra 50 MAD (the Moroccan currency, approximately 1/10th of a USD) for our ticket than the other passengers.  Using their French, they were able to retrieve our 50 MAD!  I was very impressed, I always figure I’m just getting a little bit ripped off in Morocco.

It took a couple of cab rides and being quite a bit overcharged before I arrived at my hostel.  I took a shower and went out for a terrible pizza before turning in the for the evening.  The next morning, I woke up to go to the bus station and purchase my ticket to Chefchaouen, the destination I was actually excited for (Casablanca is mainly just a commercial city).

After procuring my ticket, I went for a tour of the city’s massive Hassan II mosque.  This mosque was built from 1987-1993, and is thus an interesting combination of the traditional (shown in the architectural style and the heavy use of stone) and the modern (the roof splits in two and opens to the sky like an NFL stadium).  After the mosque, I went for lunch and then headed for the train station.


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Location 2 – Chefchaoeun

While much of Morocco is not particularly scenic (Morroco is a desert coast, and thus can be quite barren), Chefchaouen has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.  The majority of the city’s buildings are painted a beautiful sky blue.  I have heard multiple reasons for this, including an invitation to the Jews of Europe after the horror of the Holocaust, and that this light blue color somehow pays tribute to Allah.  Whatever the reason, it yields a tremendous sight. 

The first main highlight was the town itself.  I basically came to the city to walk around and take pictures.  As you’ll see below, there isn’t much explanation necessary.


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The second highlight was a visit to one of the town’s Marijuana farms.  Pot is firmly illegal in Morocco, but is strangely tolerated by the local Police (I’m sure there’s some $$$ going around), especially in the mountainous region near Chefchaouen.  It is so tolerated that tours to fields of Marijuana (only a 30 minute hike into the hills overlooking the town) are advertised in the hostel.  I qualified this as a “when in Rome” experience.  You’ll see as well a video of me beating something with some sticks.  This process breaks the crystalline chemical structures (where contain the psychoactive chemical THC) off of the plant so that it can be packaged and smoked.  It is this stuff that’s shaken off that is the “hash” that people smoke.


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Location 3 – Tangier

My stop in Tangier is mainly to get to a place where I could take a ferry to Spain.  That being said, I met some nice people on my way there!  The trip began with waiting at the bus station, learning about Spanish from some new friends who were from the Basque Country in Spain, then I met friends on my bus who were from Colombia, who helped me to enrich my Spanish even more.  This culminated in meeting Gerda, a woman from South Africa, who was using her son’s phone and was having trouble finding her AirBnb.  With the help of some local kids, we found her AirBnb in Tangier’s “kasbah” area.  These kids then recommended a restaurant for me, but unfortunately this food generated my second food sickness of my Morocco trip. 

This night turned out to be a lot of fun, as I met more kids playing in the street as I attempted to find my way home through the winding streets of the Medina.  Most of them spoke no English, but I was able to explain to them that I was a traveler by showing them pictures from my instagram (@bombassbreads). 


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The next day was mostly spent relaxing, then I relaxed with some friends over dinner and some wine of the hostel’s rooftop.

The following morning, I hopped on a ferry to Spain!

Morocco Part 1

After a few hours flight from Budapest, I landed in Agadir, Morocco!

Rather than do my usual play-by-play of events, I’ve decided to take a more relaxed approach (in the spirit of this section of the trip, where I’ve put the focus on relaxation).

Location 1 — Lunar Surf House, Tamraght

I began my time in Morocco with a few days at the Lunar Surf House in Tamraght.  Tamraght is about 30 minutes north of Agadir, both of which are towns along the southern Moroccan coast.  The house was a stop for a number of European travelers, all looking for a bit of relaxation and surf off the beaten path.  I’ve included a few highlights:

First, the hostel itself.  The building was lovely, including a rooftop terrace with plenty of group space, as well as the top-most tier that made for a lovely place to read a book while watching the sunset.  On top of the building itself, the staff made group meals for breakfast and dinner.  These meals were in the vein of Moroccan home cooking, and were often excellent.  Plus, they provided a venue for the various members of the hostel to interact and make friends.  During these dinners I made most of my friends I’d spend time with at Lunar Surf, who hailed from the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and the United States.

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Second, the surfing.  I hadn’t tried surfing since the lesson or two I’d taken on family vacation in middle school.  I was excited to find that I enjoyed surfing thoroughly, and that my time spent on a snow board gave me a bit of an edge over my less board-friendly compatriots.  I went out for two days of surfing both in the morning and afternoon, soaking up the salt and sun.  I’ve heard of many travelers finding themselves transfixed by Bali or other surfing destinations, and I can certainly understand where they’re coming from.


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Third, our trip to the swimming hole.  A crew of guys set out from the hostel with our guide (nicknamed GoPro) to visit a swimming area about an hour inland from the hostel.  This included swimming, lunch, and a previously unannounced trip to an argan oil co-op in an attempt to sell us overpriced argan-based products.  I did not purchase any, though a couple of our guys did.

For those that don’t know, argan oil comes from the argan tree, which produces small, oily nuts that, when released from hard outer shells, can be ground or pressed for their precious oil.  This oil is high various types of good fats and can have a nice effect on one’s hair and skin.

The swimming hole was a strange combination of desert oasis and backcountry lake.  The scenic nature was covered in graffiti and trash, but still made for nice swimming.  We took the opportunity to cool off in fresh water and to jump from some of the cliffs over the water.


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From there I took the suggestion of new friend Antoine to head to an eco-commune style hostel a few hours north.

Location 2 — L’Ane Vert (The Green Donkey)

My next location was a hostel in a semi-remote area of coastal Morocco.  L’Ane Vert seeks to be a sustainable vacation destination, with minimal energy usage and various systems to effectively manage its waste.  All of the electricity used comes from solar panels, and waste (human or otherwise) is either recycled or used as compost (in the case of the human waste, for non-edible plants only!).  On top of this, the hostel has a beautiful patio/restaurant/bar area for all hostel members to mingle and dine together.  There isn’t much to do besides surf and go to the beach, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

My days here were filled with delicious food, great surf, and a beautiful sandy beach.


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Location 3 — Essouira

After a few relaxing days at L’Ane Vert, I headed into the nearest city for a couple nights before heading north.  Here I stayed at a beautiful hostel in the medina (the medina is the old town center, surrounded by a wall).  I only spent one full day in Essouira, which I spent surfing and eating with new friends Simon and Kim (from Germany).  Simon was a fellow software engineer, so we had plenty to talk about!  I also met up with Antoine, a Dutch friend from my previous two hostels, for a lovely dinner in a hip Moroccan restaurant.


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Next, a long bus ride to Casablanca.


Budapest is the capital and most populous city of Hungary.  It is the combination of the medieval cities Buda and Pest (thus the combined name).  These cities were created in the 13th and 12th centuries, respectively, but were only combined into the Budapest we know today in the late 1800s.  Hungary has seen a great deal of political turmoil in its time.  The legacy of Ottoman rule is still clear in the city’s bathhouses and its love for the spice paprika, and the tumultuous change of rule during the 20th century included the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire, takeover by the Nazis, Communist rule during the Cold War, and finally democracy that is now collapsing into authoritarianism.  The city is now a beautiful, thriving metropolis, full of fantastic culture and (especially) nightlife.

After a sleepless ride on the night bus, I arrived in Budapest.  Once arriving at the hostel, I put the couch to good use and enjoyed a few hours of recovery.  After these hours had passed, I joined up with new friend Tom to check out a nearby market and grab some lunch.  Fresh juice stands are quite common in Budapest, so I made sure to sample one as soon as I could.  After the market, Tom and I shared a startlingly large bowl of Goulash (basically beef broth with meat, potatoes, vegetables, and an intense amount of paprika). 


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After lunch, we stopped back at the hostel so I could check in to my room.  We then joined up with new hostel-mate Joe and set out to take a walking tour.  The tour began in one of the city’s main squares, where I took the opportunity to drink from one of the spouts on the fountain.  Budapest’s fountains all dispense potable water, and make for a fun picture. 

The tour took us from the main body of the city (Pest) and across the river to the castle (in Buda).  Buda and Pest were originally two cities, but were combined into the Budapest we know today during the Enlightenment (???).  The castle had beautiful views of the city and stunning architecture.  Unfortunately, most of it was built after WWII, as it was destroyed by Allied forces in their fight against the Nazis who used it as a stronghold.


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In the evening I went out on a pub crawl to check out the local nightlife.  Budapest is known for having excellent bars, and I certainly found that to be the case.


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The next morning, I linked back up with Tom and Joe for some brunch and a walk through town.  While some parts of the city aren’t particularly interesting architecturally, they are still host to the occasional street mural or beautiful building.


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After brunch, we went to the House of Terror, a museum on the role of secret police first during the Nazi occupation of Hungary then during Communist rule up through the 1990s.  This museum did not allow pictures, so I’ve only got a few below.  The short version was that those who sat in opposition to the state suffered greatly, and were often taken away in secret.  These prisoners were often severely tortured and sometimes executed. 


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After the museum, we went for a walk towards the city’s main park.  The walk was along a lovely pedestrian path, culminating at the base of a large square with a huge obelisk.


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Once we entered the park, we took the opportunity to take out a tacky plastic canoe onto the manmade lake.  The boat made for some awkward paddling, but it was a nice way to spend a half hour.  I took the opportunity to get a side view picture of the nearby castle.


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After leaving our pseudo-canoe behind, we took a walk through the nearby castle.  The architecture was like something out of a Disney movie, with beautiful tall turrets and winding walkways.  It made for a few lovely handstand pictures.


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After the castle, Tom and I went to sample one of the city’s Turkish bathhouses.  These, like the city’s preference for the spice paprika, are a remnant of the centuries that the city spent as part of the Ottoman Empire.  They use natural mineral water from the city’s natural springs, and are a lovely way to spend a couple of hours.  The baths are co-ed and thus clothed, though apparently there are segregated baths at the city’s more traditional locations.  Afterwards, Tom and I went out for Gyros near the hostel and got ridiculously large beers.


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That evening, I teamed up with some new friends from the hostel for a night out.  One of our compatriots, Rachel, had just become a year older (25?) and was thus looking to celebrate.  After alerting the staff at the first cafe we visited, we were rewarded with a round of fruity shots and a flaming cup of absinthe.  We then toured a few more bars before ending up at a Latin dance club that we all throughly enjoyed.


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The next day, we woke up late and visited a bagel sandwich shop for lunch.  It was extremely hip and we ate using an old door as a table.  I then spent the afternoon at the hostel catching up on my blog and picking my next destination (only an $82 flight!).  I also took the opportunity to call my friend Andrew from home to catch up.

Afterwards, I linked up with Nina (roommate) and Nick (hostel staff) to grab some food and a beer.  We checked out a local place that made grilled baguette sandwiches, stopped at a beer garden to drink and chat, and then got stuck in the rain on our way home and dived into a local bar for a second round of brews.


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After a shower and a new set of clothes, I sat in the hostel kitchen to drink and get to know more people from the hostel.  We were all ready to go out when the storm kicked back in, delaying us by about an hour and a half.  Fortunately, the group’s energy prevailed and we made it out for a beer garden and a trip to the famous Szimpla, the crown jewel of the Budapest ruin bars.  These ruin bars are situated inside formerly abandoned buildings and are usually decorated with various reclaimed materials and objects.


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The next day I headed to the packed Budapest airport for my flight to Morocco! 

Surf’s up, see you in Tamraght.


Krakow is the second largest city in Poland, and is in the southern half of the country.  It is the country’s second most populace city, and was its capital until the mid 16th century.  Today, it is best known for its beautiful old town (a UNESCO world heritage site), its vibrant Jewish quarter (full of restaurants, bars, and cafes), and its proximity to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz.

I began my trip in Krakow with some food and some relaxing in the hostel.  I made some amazing friends (one of whom is French, speaks four languages fluently, and worked as an aid at the Obama White House) and ate Perogi.

The next day, I teamed up with roommate Ben to take a walk around the city.  We walked past many of the Old Town’s prettiest buildings, and toured the city’s castle.  We then went to a hummus restaurant for lunch and a trendy bar in the Jewish Quarter for a mid-day beer.


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Afterwards, we joined up with hostel-mates Ming and Adam for a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  These mines once produced one of Poland’s main products: rock salt.  Cavernous chambers were built during the mine’s use, including a beautiful Catholic Church.  Since then, the mine ceased to be used as a mining business, but is now available for tours.


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After the mine, we went out for dinner and then Ben, Adam, and I went to a craft beer bar to try some local brews.  I had an excellent Gosé (a type of sour beer), but it was unfortunately the only one I’d have that evening, as the bar closed at 10pm.  Rather than move on to other nightlife, we took this as a sign and went back to the hostel.

After bidding Adam farewell the next morning, Ben and I went out for brunch in the old town.  Feeling like a splurge, we accompanied our meal with wine.  This trend continued into a bar after lunch, and culminated with us joining a free walking tour for a few minutes before deciding it was too boring.  Rather than slog onward, we went off to get more drinks.  We stopped at a fancy vodka bar to try various exotic vodkas, including an earl grey flavor that was quite delicious.


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After some resting time back at the hostel, we met up with Ming for dinner.  We decided to try a highly rated sushi spot, which did not disappoint.  We enjoyed a 7 course tasting menu before stopping in the main square of the Jewish quarter for ice cream.


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The next morning I took a bus out to Auschwitz.  This was heartbreaking, as one might expect.  While I’d been to a holocaust museum before, a museum cannot convey the size of Birkenau (the main death camp of the camps at Auschwitz), which provides a view of the magnitude of the horror that was the holocaust.  Also, my father let me know that our family was from a part of Poland (then Germany) called Wroclaw (then Breslau).  The Jews from this area would have been moved to and murdered at Auschwitz.  


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After visiting the camp, I went back to the hostel to grab my backpack.  I then went out for dinner with another traveler before boarding my overnight bus.

Next stop, Budapest!


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After a long bus ride, I arrived in the center of Prague.  Prague is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic, with a population of around 1.3 million.  The city contains architecture from a variety of European styles, with some of the most notable structures being built during the reign of Charles IV during the mid 14th century.  Charles made Prague into a proper imperial capital, and at the time it was the third largest capital in Europe.  Today, Prague is better known for tourism and the turbulent events it experienced during the 20th century, including a takeover by the Nazis and the painful rule of Communism.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Prague has seen a swift rise economically, and is quickly getting more expensive.  For the time being, it is still a lovely city to visit, though quite touristy.

After arriving in Prague, I took a winding walk through the city to take pictures.  The city is full of beautiful curved streets with cobblestones.  In the evening, I joined my hostel mates for a group dinner.


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The next day, I went out for a walking tour.  We moved through various sights that highlight the city’s history.  Notable moments included the invention of the Pilsner style beer (apparently the beer that came before was quite disgusting), the history of the author Kafka, the abysmal treatment of Prague’s Jewish population (even before the holocaust), and the role of Charles IV in building some of Prague’s greatest landmarks (including the bridge that bears his name).


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After the tour, I went out for lunch and some unpasteurized Pilsner Urquell (the main Czech Pilsner) with new friend Ari.  Ari is from South Africa and taught me a great deal about the history and politics of the country, which are quite rough at the moment.

We then went for a visit through some of the sights in the Jewish quarter.  This first began with a large synagogue built in style of a mosque.  This also included a small exhibit on the history of the Jews in Prague and the artifacts left behind from when they were most populous.


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After this museum, we headed to the Jewish memorial, which contains the names of all the Jews from Prague that were killed during the Holocaust.  It was simple, but stirring.  This is attached to the old Jewish cemetery that was reminiscent of the spooky cemetery in Harry Potter.  The cemetery actually holds many more people than it seems, as it is composed of vertical layers of graves.


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In the evening, I relaxed in the hostel and played some drinking games in the common room.  I’ve enjoyed taking more time to read recently, and have been cruising through the Harry Potter series!

The next day, I went for a trip up to the city’s main castle with an English brother and sister from my hostel.  We walked through the main Cathedral (in the castle), though it was quite crowded as you had to wait in line to enter the nave.  Rather than wait, we chose to move on.  We stopped for a coffee and a snack, before walking out of the castle through the “gardens,” which were actually just some bushes in a line.


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After leaving the castle, we went through a small museum detailing the history of the Czech nation.  I found the part covering the Nazi occupation to be the most interesting, as it contained various artifacts like a full SS uniform and a decorative knife.  There was a (creepy) sample of real human skin with tattoos on it.  I wasn’t sure why this was included, but it was so strange that I had to take a picture of it.


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After lunch, we went for a quick stop at a church that had been the final showdown of the men who assassinated Nazi commander Reinhard Heydrich, most known for penning the original plan for the Nazi’s infamous “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”  While the assassination was felt to be a triumph at the time, the Czech peopled found that it brought on worse treatment by the Nazi’s and had little value in weakening the Nazi’s power overall. 


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In the evening I met up with Ari and some friends from his hostel.  We went to a beer museum/bar with live Bluegrass music (wasn’t expecting that), and then out to a few more bars and a quite lame, touristy club.  Ari’s friends were very nice, with many of them being native Spanish speakers that I could practice what I’d been learning with.


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The next day I went for a bit of a change of pace—a shooting experience at a gun range outside of the city.  This is not a thing I’m usually up for, but in Prague you can shoot a wide range of firearms that would cost a fortune to shoot in the US.  I am not a big fan of guns (and instruments of death in general), but I will admit I found particular models to be true feats of engineering, including the Uzi, AK-47, and the Remington sniper rifle.  The gun from China was of the lowest quality, which the instructor said was not surprising.


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In the afternoon I went out for to sample some local breweries with a couple of the hostel’s staff (I was the only person to show up for a beer garden tour, but they were nice enough to take me along anyways!).  We went to a variety of nice spots, finishing at a quiet place for local residents along a river.  It was a lovely way to spend my last evening in Prague.


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Next stop, Krakow!


Berlin is Germany’s capital and largest city, situated in the northeastern end of the country.  Berlin’s history goes back as far as the 13th century, but its most interesting history (IMHO) all took place within the last century.  As both capital of the Third Reich and of East Germany, the city has been expanded, destroyed, separated, and reunified.  One might think such a tumultuous past would be a burden on the present day city, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The city is host to a wide variety of colorful neighborhoods and vibrant cultural events.  Known especially for its nightlife, Berlin is also host to some tremendous museums, cafes, and art.

After a few hours on the bus, I entered Berlin and checked in to my hostel.  It just so happened that there was a movement-based (something like Ido Portal’s style) gym only a few storefronts down from my hostel.  I took the opportunity to join for a drop-in class, which absolutely demolished me.  I will certainly have to put in some work to revitalize my fitness once I’ve slowed down my travels.  After dinner I went to a highly rated Vietnamese restaurant (it was ok), which was quite crowded.  I was seated with two Mexican students whom I did not know, but quickly became friends with.  We enjoyed chatting during our dinner, and they helped me with some Spanish vocabulary.


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The next morning I went out for a walking tour with a new friend from my room, Zarya.  We met up with our guide near the Brandenburg Gate, which once lay at the separation of west and east Berlin.  Our guide provided interesting anecdotes about the surrounding buildings, including the Reichstag.  Our next major stop was the memorial to the Jews killed in the Holocaust, which is an art piece consisting of many cement blocks of varying heights positioned in a large grid.  Some stops afterwards included a large building built by the Nazis that is today a government ministry building.  The building is quite ridged in it’s architecture, and looks quite unfriendly.  We then took a quick walk past the tourist trap known as Checkpoint Charlie.  Though the name is from a real place (where one could cross between West and East Berlin), everything else about it is fake.  We then moved to our Starbucks for a bathroom break.


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After the break we went for a walk past many of Berlin’s oldest buildings, though they’ve all been destroyed and reconstructed multiple times.  This included a beautiful concert hall, some lovely churches, and a glamorous opera house.  We also stopped for a look down into an art piece (it’s hard to see, but its a room filled with empty bookcases) built on the spot of one of the Nazi’s largest book burnings.  The tour finished with a trip to a war memorial, but Zarya and I were a bit oversaturated with history and chose to go to a coffeeshop.  The coffeeshop was beautiful and was situated in a courtyard off of the main street.


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In the evening, we went to a lovely vegan restaurant.  Berlin has so many!  It truly is quite hip.  Anyone who would feel at home in Brooklyn would find a place in Berlin that would be a perfect fit.

The next day, I set my sights on a big breakfast and some of the more intriguing parts of the previous day’s tour.  I first made a stop at memorial from the end of the tour, which featured a moving statue of a mother holding her fallen son.  I hung around waiting for the perfect moment to a take a picture that was free of other tourists.  I then took the scenic route towards the Topography of Terror museum, walking by some cool street art and a part of the Berlin Wall which lies next to the museum.


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The museum was based around the apparatus of terror within the Nazi party, beginning with the SA and then moving into the SS and Gestapo (nationalized secret police).

Like most museums relating to the Nazis, it began with an outline of the Nazi’s rise to power.  This was explained mostly as the slow growth of far-right elements within German society, which found fertile ground in the squalor left in the wake of World War I.  I made a note that I wanted to understand this further, and planned to visit the German History museum later in my stay.  This rise was finalized when the Nazis fully took over the Reichstag, both through popular support and the Nazi SA’s hunting of political opponents.  Opponents who fled or were captured where marked in favor of the Nazi takeover.


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From there, the Nazis’ power only continued to increase.  With total control over the state, the party set about strengthening the apparatus of power.  Elements of this process included various social programs and propaganda campaigns (it is worth nothing that, in the early years, the Nazis created various populist programs that garnered significant public support, even while they were accompanied by significant hate speech and the marginalization of Jews and other minority groups).  However, this process was most significantly facilitated by the rise of the SS and Gestapo, both under the command of Heinrich Himmler.  It was these elements which would exercise terror both on the minority groups (Jews, Roma, Slavs, LGBTQ people, the handicapped, and more) and on the German people themselves (notably on those who opposed the Nazis politically).  The SS and Gestapo formed a complete system that kept the people down and dealt with the elements deemed problematic, from initial selection and removal from the state, all the way up to transportation, forced labor, and often execution.


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The museum then provided greater detail on the background and implementation of the oppression of various groups within the Reich.  While there were far too many stories to go into detail here, it is worth mentioning that in every element of the Nazi’s handling of so-called foreign or enemy persons, brutality and dehumanization were intrinsic.  These included in the quite well-known murder of millions of Jews and other minority groups, but also in the mistreatment of millions of Russian troops, many of which were put into forced labor and subject to horrific living conditions much like those of the Jews. 


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With the end of the war, this apparatus of terror unravelled (though not without quite vicious last moves before its death, including tremendous numbers of victims killed by the SS before the evacuated the camps that were along the rapidly approaching front lines toward Berlin).  While some significant members of the SS (the SS was declared to be criminal by an international military tribunal once their treatment of civilians and enemy POWs was revealed) were tried, convicted, and some even executed, the vast majority of Nazis simply moved back into everyday life.  Many even moved back into the post-war versions of the institutions that they participated in under the Nazis.  This included judges and police, which I found particularly upsetting.

Overall, I was left wondering, “how did a Nazi state become modern Germany, which is quite open and tolerant?”  I left this question for the German History museum, which I would visit later.


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After the museum, I went for a burger and beer at a trendy local spot.  It was delicious, but I did not yet know what would become of it!


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The next morning, I awoke to significant nausea.  I ended up laying in bed all day (though I did finish an entire Harry Potter book).  I had picked up some sort of stomach bug.  The previous dinner was unfortunately given away, as well as the dinner I’d enjoy that night.  Not a fun way to spend the day!  The highlight was getting out of bed to go eat hummus and video chat with my friend David from home.  It was great to reconnect, though I did have to cut the call short to relinquish my dinner.


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The next morning, I found myself to be mostly recovered and took the opportunity go see some things around town.  I began with the Berlin Wall Memorial, which is a museum sitting next to one of the only (slightly) preserved sections of what was known as the “death strip” (will explain later in the post).  While the museum was closed, I took the opportunity to walk around and see the remaining sections of wall.  Like much of the wall, it is adorned with graffiti and has taken a beating.  Understandably, the Germans weren’t particularly fond of the wall and took many a pic-axe to it once the reunification festivities began.


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From there I went down to the Subway to head towards the German History museum.  I was surprised to find that the subway station contained a small exhibit on how the subway worked during the separation of Berlin.  It just so happened that there were subway lines from West Berlin that moved through East Berlin (thus moving across the wall, but underground).  Also, the part of the German government that ran the trains was situated in East Berlin, and thus became an East German government business.  Many stations that were open before the separation were closed, but eventually re-opened in the 90s (including the one I was in).  The exhibit also included information on various people who had escaped into the West via the train tunnels, and the security measures the East German government put in place afterwards to prevent future escapes.


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After my train ride, I stopped at a cafe to use the wifi and talk to my friend Lewis, who I stayed with shortly before I began my trip.  He gave me some valuable advice on traveling to Italy, which I’m looking forward to doing in October.

I then moved on to the German History Museum.  This museum tells the story of Germany from the early middle ages up to the present day through the use of artifacts and the stories that accompany them.  If one follows the entire museum, it is supposed to take seven hours, so I decided to focus on the areas I was most curious about: pre WWI, the space between WWI and WWII, and the movement from a defeated Nazi state into modern day Germany.

In the decades before WWI, Germany saw a rapid industrialization much like what had happened in Britain in the decades before that.  This, coupled with the unification of multiple German states (the largest and most powerful being Prussia) into a single German Empire (what may now be called the Second Reich), gave the German King quite a bit of confidence in the abilities of his nation as a global force.  The German leadership came to believe that they could strike out against their neighbors decisively and quickly, gaining an increase in territory that they believed would provide a significant benefit.  Thus, when Serbian rebels assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Germans were happy to fight.


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As we now know, this did not come to pass.  None of the countries involved understood the new level of carnage that was possible through the advances in military technology that came in the years before the war.  After years of war, the Germans eventually capitulated and were made to pay dearly.  Large amounts of German territory were given to the surrounding states, and the Germans were made to pay the debts of all the nations involved in the war (not to mention taking the blame for starting the war).  The German economy was thus totally broke, even in the roaring 20s that saw tremendous economic times in the world’s other developed countries.  These hard times led to tremendous resentment amongst the German populace, who had fought and died just like the nations around them, but were now living far worse lives than they had before the war.  Far right elements within the nation thus began to group together, riding upon scapegoats like Jews and the French colonial soldiers (who were black) that were stationed in Germany during a short occupation of Western German lands by the French in the early twenties.  Note the early use of the Swastika in a nationalist rally from the early 20s in the photos below.  Before Hitler was involved in the Nazi party, he was involved with one of these more general, pro-German nationalism parties.


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As the 20s rolled on, these parties began to create more coherent political ideology, which manifested in political pamphlets and books.  Hitler, while in prison for a failed rebellion that many saw as a patriotic act (he received many letters from fans while in prison), wrote his infamous Mein Kampf during this time.  These parties became great proponents of militarism, which had been seen as a great attribute of German society before WWI.  This is seen in the infamous brown outfits of the SA, the precursor to the German SS.

Also highlighted was the turbulent relationships of the various political parties within the republic.  Rather than Nazism coming about without opposition, the other parties simply could not form a coherent, working coalition party.  This vacuum provided a path for the Nazis to take power, promising order and direction.  The Nazis also painted these parties as corrupt and tied to Jewish interests.  The takeover was finalized when the Nazi terror apparatus began capturing members of the opposing political groups.


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Once in power, the Nazis set out to build positive sentiment around their party as a legitimate government with Hitler as the paternal symbol.  This took the form of work and vacation programs for adults and his picture being placed in homes and schools (see a miniature picture of him inside of a girl’s doll house).  The idea of the Nazi party in union with an idealized German people was pushed through various programs that were meant to be symbolic of German culture and unity, such as the villages built in a uniform style.


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The exhibit then moved into the beginnings of the development of the German war machine, in particular the deployment of German forces and weaponry in the Spanish Civil War.    This war was sold in Germany as a fight against Bolshevism abroad, but in fact was a trial run for much of Germany’s new military technology.  The bombing of Guernica in Spain’s Basque region stands out in particular from this conflict due to the vicious bombing of civilians that took place and the famous Picasso painting that stands as a testament to the slaughter.


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I then skipped most of the war section, having learned about it in other museums.  I went straight to the postwar section, hoping to attain better understanding of how a defeated state developed into a modern, quite tolerant German state.  Overall, it seemed that the German populace was mostly interested in rebuilding their country and economy after the war.  While they were likely unhappy with the Nazis as a result of how Germany had been destroyed, there was not yet the reckoning one might expect to come from events as horrific as those of the holocaust.  This actually came about in the early 1980s, in part due to the airing in Germany of an American program called Holocaust (aired 1979), watched by 20 million Germans (over 25% of the country’s total population).  This deeply affected many young Germans and brought about a shift in the national dialogue around the war.  Since then, the German people have put in tremendous effort to understand and explore the holocaust, educating themselves and their youth.


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After the museum I went to a cafe for a bit of a break and some reading.  I then went to the well-recommended Jewish museum, but found that the main exhibit was closed for renovations.  I changed plans and went to a small museum on the living conditions of East Germany during the Soviet years. 

This museum was quite fun, painting a (seemingly) fair and balanced picture of life under the East German government.  This included sections on the products available to East Berliners, which were of reasonable quality but often lacking in luxury.  While the communist system was excellent at maintaining baseline living standards for its populace (for example, there was a period in East Germany that bread was so cheap some farmers were feeding it to pigs), the lack of capitalist competition made for slow development in technology and non-necessity consumer goods.  The government eventually implemented a store for luxury goods (such as the shark find soup you’ll see below), but it was often too expensive for most to indulge.  Other highlights included the model of car that most popular (it had plastic parts to make it cheaper) but that often required a long wait (sometimes as long as 10 or 15 years) to attain, and the Soviet competitor to the Sony walkman, which was uglier, didn’t work as well, and was quite expensive.


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The museum went into detail on the various elements of East German society that we often associate with Russia and the Soviet Union.  These include an intense focus on sport (including state-sanctioned steroid use for professionals competing on a world stage), intense militarism (the military was always at the ready in case the time was right to invade West Berlin), and an essentially fake parliament that followed the direction of the leadership of a single party. 

An especially interesting section covered the manufacture of Western products in East Germany.  The lower cost of labor in East Germany was an incentive for American businesses (including, apparently, Pepsi cola) to produce products in East Germany, though they were almost exclusively sold abroad.  This process brought in foreign currency (which the East Berlin desperately needed to allow purchasing goods from abroad) and significant funds of the government, though this wealth was never shared with the populace.


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In the end, the East German economy faltered to keep up with the rise of technology.  Such rapid innovation is a perfect fit for the capitalistic mentality, and could not be matched in the Eastern bloc.  For example, in 1988, East Germany announced they were ready to produce a 1 MB microchip that would come out two years later than the international competition and cost 100 times more to produce.  It was never put into production.


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After the museum I went out for a walk and some dinner.  I’ve been re-reading Harry Potter and haven’t been able to put them down!


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The next day, I teamed up with some new friends at the hostel and rented some bikes.  We went out for a ride through town, enjoying the beautiful weather and suffering through the cobblestone streets (the bike seats were not of the quality one would hope for given how bumpy the streets were).


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We parked our bikes and paid a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial museum.  This museum was quite thorough, beginning with the closing of the border between East and West Berlin.  Previously, there were governmental differences between the zones, but people could move freely between the two.  Thus, many people commuted to work, see family, and maintain relationships.  With the close of the border, each of these was suddenly cut off. 

While there was information on the greater historical context of the wall, the exhibit mostly focused on the stories on individuals who lived in East Germany and either sought to escape or worked as collaborators.  Incredible stories included those who ran through the fence (at the beginning it was just a barbed wire fence, which was later fortified with multiple layers), a man who swam through a lake to get to the other side, and many who dug tunnels.


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From there we went to get some lunch.  Berlin is host to many hip areas, with vegetarian and vegan food becoming especially popular.  We went to one such place, but found the high fiber content to come with all too little flavor.  Afterwards we visited some hip shops nearby and began biking to the central museum section of Berlin.


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Having only a little over an hour to visit museums, we settled on the Neues (new) museum.  This was a cross between a natural history museum and an antiquities-style museum, featuring a combination of story and artifact.  There were some apparently famous pieces, including a large metallic hat and a bust of Nefertiti that we weren’t allowed to take photos of.  One part I found particularly interesting were glass beads that had been melted during American fire bombing in Berlin and had fused together to look a bit like coral.


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After the museum we went for a trip down to the East Side Gallery, a part of the Berlin Wall that is covered with various pieces of art.


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After the wall, went to a beer garden to relax.  Berlin is host to many a hip place, and this area did not disappoint.  We then biked back north to return our bikes and go for a last beer at a beautiful beer garden.   You’ll see me taking a large, photo-ready swig of my beer in one photo and then burping up the excess gas in the next.


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The next morning I checked out of my hostel and went to a lovely cafe for brunch and coffee.  I also bought a loaf of bread!  It was good, but I think mine is quite good as well.  Berlin was a lovely city, and I’d definitely visit again. 


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On to Prague!


My next stop was in central Germany to visit a friend from earlier in my trip—Raoul.  Raoul is a medical resident, studying Neurology.  We met at our hostel in Glasgow, Scotland, where he offered me a place on his air mattress should I ever pass through Paderborn.  Knowing I’d be in the area, I decided to take him up on the offer!

As Raoul had work until 5pm each day, I was left to occupy myself in the afternoon.  After arriving at the bus station, I stopped at a coffee shop for lunch and to ask for recommendations on some activities.  I found that the best museums (including what is, apparently, the world’s largest computer museum—perfect for me) were all closed!  As I would see on a variety of shop windows, numerous business in Paderborn were closed in the middle weeks of August so that their owners might enjoy a holiday.

Paderborn lies in a highly Catholic area of Germany, and the town contains a Cathedral.  I thus decided to visit some of the town’s churches.


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After the churches I went to a cafe to read and have a cold beer.  I relaxed there for a while until Raoul was done with work.  We met up and went for a short walk around the main areas of Paderborn, including some small waterways and authentic, medieval German houses.  We then stopped at a cafe for a German beer.  We had a lovely waitress that I got to practice some German words on, with Raoul to help my pronunciation. 


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In the evening, Raoul made dinner for the two of us at his apartment and I met some of his fellow medical students.  We also enjoyed a few glasses of Oban scotch whisky (Raoul and I have a mutual interest there, which we indulged while in Glasgow). 

Raoul woke before me the next day to head to work, but was kind enough to lend me his bike.  I took it out for a spin, in search of a schwarma place that was quite highly rated on the internet.  I found it to be closed for middle of August, much like the museums.  In desperate hunger, I went to a mediocre pizza place nearby.  I then spent the afternoon in a cafe, catching up on blog posts and enjoying a Spanish lesson with my online teacher.  In the evening I met back up with Raoul for beer, a fine Italian dinner, and eventually a bit of salsa dancing with his friend Gaia (hope I got that name right).  You’ll see a photo of Gaia instructing Raoul on the basic step.


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Traveling is quite an individual endeavor most of the time, so it’s always a treat to get to spend quality time with good friends. 

Next stop, Berlin!

(418) 373-1006

I arrived in Dortmund, which seems to be known for… nothing really.  It was really a way to burn a day en route to Paderborn, to see my friend Raoul.  I spent the afternoon going for a run around the city and catching up on blog posts.  In the evening I went out for dinner with Giovani, a Belgian I met in my room.  We had some schnitzel and beer while learning German phrases from our waitress. 


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Definitely the shortest blog post of the trip so far!

Next stop, Paderborn.