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Stories from Month 15

Zagreb, Croatia

I'll Be Back

timI arrived to Zagreb on a night bus with the plan to spend only a few hours looking around town before catching a train to Slovenia. It didn't take long to figure out this was a mistake. Zagreb turned out to be quite a charming place with a feel somewhere between big city and comfortable small town.

The walk north from the train station passed by green parks and museums, while the central old section filled my eyes with lively canary yellow and peach colored buildings outlined in white trim. Many pedestrian-only areas made the city feel livable, with a fresh vegetable market that puts any supermarket to shame and a bewildering array of cafe tables to be found.

Wish I could have stayed longer, but I left to meet a friend in Slovenia. top

Passengers departing Zagreb's train station enjoy this green park and ochre building (Exhibition Pavilion, 1897) as their first glimpse of the city.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Touring with the Hat Guy

timGreg earned his moniker of "Hat Guy" almost one year ago when I met him on the South Pacific island of Samoa. He wore a homemade pixyish hat fashioned from the shed bark of a palm tree and everywhere he went, he left the Samoans in hysterics. I knew then he would be someone worth keeping up with.

At the time I met him, I confused his country Slovenia with Slovakia - a big mistake in hindsight, now that I have a firm grasp of central European geography, but it is a small and new enough country that I should probably spout of a few facts about it before continuing...

Slovenia broke from Yugoslavia in 1991 with one of the strongest economies in eastern Europe. So although it shares borders with Croatia and Hungary to the southeast, it feels much more like its other developed neighbors to the northwest - Austria and Italy. And with a land area as small as Wales and a population of only two million, it is an easy country to tour when you are short on time (especially when your friend has a car!).

We started out in the homey capital city of Ljubljana (sounds like Lyublyana) on a bright Saturday morning, where it seemed everyone was out buying vegetables from a well-organized open market adjacent to the Ljubljana River and the colorful buildings of town. I loved the feel of the city - so full of life and energy, yet with a quaint small-town feel. It is a place where residents actually wait for walk signals before crossing empty intersections and lock their bikes with skimpy chains that could be broken by a single look from a New York City bike thief.

After a quick tour of the city, we screeched up to the castle above town in the blue Mazda convertible that Greg bought as a "fun summer car." Under maximum G's and the sound of a revving engine I learned about his car-racing hobby and the racecar he used to own.

But once I trusted his driving skills, I enjoyed his fast tour of Slovenia. We jumped off the highway to the local roads and approached the Julian Alps on sporty fun-to-drive pavement full of curves and hills. With the top down, the alpine air felt so clean and crisp, while the view of blue sky and cottony clouds hovering over mountain ranges looked spectacular. Greg spouted out Slovenia's old tourism motto, "Welcome to the Sunny Side of the Alps."

We stopped first in Bled, a resort-ish town planted alongside a beautiful green-blue lake. The surrounding mountains added to its charm - covered in droopy pine trees and hosting Bled Castle from high above on a cliff across the water.

Island Church sat on a small piece of land in the center of the lake. When Greg described Slovenia's newlywed tradition of carrying brides up the 100+ stairs of its bell tower, I saw a boat full of well-dressed people singing and rowing out to visit. The bell rang later for good luck, also signaling, no doubt, that a sweaty groom was close to an early heart attack.

We left Bled via steep alpine roads and paused for a short scramble up to the head of the Izvir Soco River, where frigid blue water pours straight from a crack in the mountain. And after a peasant-style lunch in an old farmhouse immortalized by a series of children's movies, we moved out of the mountains and entered a completely different geographical area - the Brda Valley wine region.

One could mistake the Brda Valley's Mediterranean climate, rolling hills, vineyards, and red tile stone homes for Italy's Tuscany region. Indeed, northern Italy is so close you can see the border off in the distance. We climbed up to the top of a tall observation tower and had a 360-degree look around.

Back on the tour, we stopped briefly at the small historic village of Stanjel, which hung somewhere between a quaint small town and ruins. The landscape changed to grassy rolling hills with leafy deciduous trees and we stopped again to catch the tail end of a casual get together in a small village - where the smoke from barbecued pork chops made me almost give up years of being vegetarian.

But we had to continue on, and headed to yet another region of Slovenia, the Adriatic coast shared with eastern Italy and Croatia. We stopped in the holiday town of Portoroz and on this Saturday, in the middle of summer, the streets were rocking with reveling partiers that made me feel like I was the only sober one in town. We found Greg's friends and spent the night in a local vacation home.

It isn't often that I get to see fun cities, historic villages, alpine mountains, Mediterranean vineyards, and coastal areas all in one day. But that is what makes Slovenia special - so much packed into one little place. top

The 1882 Opera building in Slovenia's capital of Ljubljana, constructed in the neo-Renaissance style by Czech architects Hrasky and Hruby. A dragon guards the threshold of the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most), built 1901, in Slovenia's capital Ljubljana. The facade of Ljubljana's produce market lies adjacent to the picturesque Ljubljanica River. The historic buildings along the Ljubljanica River. The Triple Bridge (Tromostavje), originally opened in 1842, crosses the Ljubljanica River in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.

Julian Alps, Slovenia


timPhoto check-in. top

The historic Bled Castle in Slovenia's Julian Alps held royalty for over 800 years. It overlooks the beautiful Lake Bled from a steep 100-meter high cliff. Here on Bled Island in the middle of Bled Lake, newlywed husbands carry their brides up the stairs of the church to ring its bell for good luck As they say in Slovenia,

Stanjel Village, Slovenia


timPhoto check-in. top

Sunset streams in through an arch in the small Slovenian village of Stanjel. The village lays somewhere between historic ruins and a living town, hosting a castle and overgrown gardens.

Branik, Slovenia

Fairy Tale

timThe Castle Story as it came to be known should begin with the "Once Upon a Time" start of fairy tales, as it involves all of the classic ingredients of a good story - love, castles, and a princess (of sorts).

The prince, my Slovenian friend Greg, related the story to me on the side of a winding country road within view of a real castle, an enormous stone building nestled among tress on the side of a mountain. The story goes a little like this...

Prince Greg worked hard and provided well for the princess Simona as a successful businessman. But all was not well in the kingdom, as the princess felt neglected by the prince who spent far to many hours at work focusing on his career.

Discussions came and went, yet prince Greg still focused on work over Simona. So the princess left in despair and forced the prince to re-evaluate his priorities more seriously.

He soon understood that his life was unbalanced. But how could the prince make amends?

He started by enlisting the help of his friends and in just five short days, carried out his plan to win the princess back.

Greg's CastleFirst, he needed a castle for his kingdom, which after much negotiation he rented from a private owner. Then he crafted an excuse to lure the princess away from the city and to his new palatial home.

As it turns out, Simona occasionally worked as an event hostess to supplement her income while attending university. So Greg had the general manager of a marketing agency call her with the job of hosting a five year anniversary party of a fictitious company. A company secretary followed up with details and a project manager delivered the princess to the castle on the appointed day, requesting her to report upstairs to start setting up.

A rose greeted the princess on the stairs with a note quoting the first line of a poem by the famous Slovenian poet France Preseren. A few stairs later, another rose appeared with the next line of the poem. Farther up, two more notes completed the stanza, which loosely translated reads:

I hoped and waited for a long time, then said good-bye to hope and fear. My heart is empty, there is no luck. I want my hope and fear back.
Petals from 36 roses lay sprinkled around the floor at the top of the stairs around a single large rose with a note explaining to the princess the real reason she had been summoned to the castle. The note explained that their relationship had been good and could be good again, if only Simona would look over the wall and make a wish. If she did so, whatever she believed at that moment would come true.

But sadly the princess didn't make her wish, she looked instead for the prince who watched her from above. They talked at length, but Simona left the castle and Prince Greg unconvinced - she decided to stay away from the kingdom.

Thought this story should have a happy ending? Me too, and if I wasn't travelling I'd add a "Vote for Greg" button so that we could all have a say. But the tale may not be over yet and if you have any good ideas for Greg to help him reunite with his princess, you can send him a note!

It has been six months since I wrote this story and I am now home, more or less settled and planning new adventures. But all this time the prince has been working hard for his princess. And who should write me this morning but the prince himself, bearing good news from Slovenia. The princess is back in the kingdom and read this web entry for the first time just the other day.

Simona herself finished the story with its only appropriate ending. She added, "and they lived happily to the end of their days." - Jan 29, 2002 top

Venice, Italy

Layers of History

timVenice needs little introduction, as all its stereotypes breath in reality - stripe-shirted oarsmen, bow shaped gondolas, graceful canals, historic buildings, romantic accordion music, and labyrinthine streets. But I arrived in summer during tourism's peak season and spent my first day head spun by the incredibly huge crowds. The popular Paizza di San Marco, for example, lures tourists with its beautiful basilica covered in mosaics and marble, but it fills to capacity like Washington DC's mall on the 4th of July or New York's Times Square during New Years Eve. Every day, all day long.

It isn't hard to escape the fray, but doing so requires loads of energy and the ability to walk, walk, and walk some more - you just have to head straight from the touristic areas and not consult a map until its time to go home.

The streets seem to be planned by a Venetian throwing spaghetti onto a cartographer's table - leaving a jumbled maze with unexpected turns and large avenues that suddenly compress down into alleys hardly wide enough for two people to walk side by side. The layout reminded me of a small village Michelle and I visited on a Greek island, where residents designed their streets with a similar chaotic layout to purposefully confuse invaders. But Venice is at least 200 times larger and more complex. Even so, I always ran into a familiar road, eventually getting home safely. And by banging around the city in this unplanned manner, I found the quiet parts of the city where only dawdling old women broke the peace of their neighborhoods.

What I enjoyed most about Venice was its historic decrepitude. The residents can sweep the streets until their brooms fall apart, but nothing will sweep away the years of grunge that cover the sidewalks. Large patches of plaster will continue to fall from walls like bark from old trees and layers of weathered brick will continue to be exposed. Watermarks will stain the walls and continue to blemish the quiet shades of red, yellow, and brown. And while Venice may one day pass laws restricting its residents from hanging laundry over canals, the paint from nearby window shutters will continue to peel and the canal will still be green.

The city was so alive with texture that I felt it with my eyes. top

Bright Colorful Day

timThe island of Burano was a colorful surprise in my day spent hopping around on vaporettos (ferries) in Venice. It is known for its handmade lace and slow paced fishing life, but I immediately appreciated it for its simple clean lines and bright hues.

Most of the row houses in town have little ornamentation, just low textured stucco walls painted with radiant colors, window frames painted with blinding white, and closed window shutters painted with darker colors.

The color combinations forced me to wear sunglasses to protect my vision. One row of homes might look like this:

An aquamarine home next to one painted hot red, both with white window frames and green shutters. They sit adjacent to a bright yellow house with red shutters and others painted lavender, baby blue, plum, maroon, peach, purple, and an ugly mint color that saw its heyday in the 1950's.

Groups of flowers with purple petals and green leaves sprout from the window box of a purple home with green shutters. Such color coordination!

Even the fragrant hanging laundry about the streets might match the home - like blue and white cloud print sheets suspended from the second floor of a baby blue house. Or in the opposite, yellow pants hanging next to dark blue paint.


A colorful window from a village in Burano, a small island a short ride from Venice by ferry. Though the island is known for its lace making and fishing, the intense colors of the village impressed me far more - each family seemed to compete for the home with the brightest and most striking colors. A fisherman's net from a village in Burano, a small island a short ride from Venice by ferry. The net is as colorful as the homes of the villagers nearby, as each family seemed to compete for the home with the brightest and most striking colors. A colorful window from a village in Burano, a small island a short ride from Venice by ferry. Though the island is known for its lace making and fishing, the intense colors of the village impressed me far more - each family seemed to compete for the home with the brightest and most striking colors. Classic Venetian buildings line a small canal in the back areas of the city.

Vienna, Austria

Get a Life

timI could whine about my everlasting train ride, but truth be told it wasn't as bad for me as for the others involved. On the night I left Venice and headed north to Vienna, an Italian train hit a maintenance vehicle and injured 40 people. The accident forced my train to detour far west from its planned route and by the time we were due to arrive, we were probably about as far away from Vienna as when we started. Luckily, I could nap well in my sleeper or was content to just watch the mountains roll by out the train window.

But after 20 hours, twice the time our trip was scheduled to take, I was scratching just as hard at the couchettes to get out as all the other passengers. Our arrival in Vienna ended with a jailbreak-like exodus from the train.

A much needed shower reset my mood back to normal and I went downtown to have a look around with a few new friends. Along the way we asked a well organized tourist information center where we could buy groceries. The otherwise helpful woman laughed. "You are in Austria. Everything closes for the weekend after 5 PM on Saturday."

It was a sad truth, nowhere more evident than on Sunday in a busy pedestrian plaza full of people out window-shopping - in the true sense of the phrase, because not a single store except for a few cafes or odd magazine vendors were open. Not that buying material things gives life to a city, but it tended to suck life from the otherwise sleepy atmosphere.

Vienna... a wealthy city with exceptionally beautiful buildings. Cleaner than an operating room and more orderly an accountant's sock drawer. But still singing, "If I only had a heart."

In all fairness, we spent the next two nights in a thriving historic district watching outdoor movies shown against the neo-gothic Rathaus (City Hall) building and eating from upscale food stalls that served a wide variety of decent international food - from Chinese to traditional sausage. Our little group spilled out from the occupied cafe tables and drank with small groups in the surrounding gardens. In what I considered the most impressive part of the two nights, the event staff served their great selection of beer from hearty half liter glasses - not plastic cups. That seemed to make all the difference!

Nevertheless, I felt a lack of depth and life to Vienna. It is hard to describe, but a crowded street in Vienna still feels somehow empty. I'm not sure what the secret is, but after visiting several European cities full of joie de vivre, Vienna gave me the cold shoulder. top

A choral group of young adults sings in Saint Stephan's (Stephansdom), a 13th century Gothic cathedral in the heart of old Vienna. The Hofburg Imperial Palace, facing the Kaiserappartements and statues. The neo-Gothic city hall building in Vienna speaks of the riches of the old Habsburg dynasty. Arches of the Schloss Schönbrunn, a 1,440-room palace on the outskirts of Vienna with a richly appointed interior and magnificent gardens. The palace hosted Mozart's first royal concert when the composer was only six years old. A view from the north tower of Saint Stephan's (Stephansdom), a 13th century Gothic cathedral in the heart of old Vienna.

Bratislava, Slovakia

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

timChanging trains at the Austrian - Slovakian border turned out to be very symbolic. Out with Austria's sleek ultra-modern carriage and in with Slovakia's slow dated replacement. I rolled on to Bratislava along the same hazy rolling hills, but everything else pass the border appeared more rustic and less shiny. A crop of ugly high rise buildings lifted up out of surrounding corn fields and fleets of state of the art 1950s wheat threshers worked the fields. Nearby, an old Czech Skoda car rusted by the side of the tracks. My train entered the main rail station through a tunnel on the opposite track, since a graffiti covered locomotive that probably hadn't moved since Glasnost blocked our side.

I began to question my plan to stay a few days when I passed rows of block apartments so ugly that even the occasional well intentioned-flower boxes seemed to call attention to how bad the surrounding buildings looked rather than to beautify them.

But after all of this, my opinion of Bratislava turned around after just five minutes in the pedestrian area of its historic center.

It was Tuesday after work and a bewildering selection of outdoor cafes served espressos and big half liters of beer to what looked like the whole city out having fun. Ah! A city that knows how to live! Cafe tables ran down the length of each street, which was surrounded in restored pre-Communist buildings that were not exactly colorful, but pleasantly warm. A few eight sided onion domes lent a distinctive flair to the skyline.

I chose a restaurant for dinner by peeking at what was being served, then ordered a salmon dish for myself. Though it was the most expensive thing on the menu, my entree plus a tasty local beer didn't even set me back $5.

Strangely enough, my salmon was served with a baseball-sized dollop of butter so large I thought it must have been a side dish. I was so sure, in fact, that I heaped a large spoonful in my mouth to see what it was. I retched with the urge to spit out immediately, but noticed a man nearby who saw the whole thing and seemed to await my reaction. Not wanting to look more foolish than I already felt, I swallowed the butter and pretended as though I meant to do that.

At least I could wash the taste out of my mouth with my choice of ice cream in the lively square after dinner. top

An ugly apartment block from Slovakia's Communist past. The old town hall (1421) in central Bratislava stands next to the pedestrian-only square Hlavné Nám. The Michael Tower surveys a lively area in central Bratislava. This pedestrian-only section of old town features so many umbrella-covered tables that it won my hands-down award for most cafés per person of any city in Europe. An ugly apartment block from Slovakia's Communist past.

Prague, Czech Republic

Holy Tourism!

timWow. I expected to see tourists in Prague, but I wasn't prepared for so many. I guess when the word at home for almost a decade has been that Prague is a great place to visit, that I shouldn't expect a tourist-free city.

Of course, I fully expected McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut, but not the TGI Friday! Transport me back to the American suburbs!

There is so much competition for the tourist dollar that hawkers stand around the old town square holding signs advertising all sorts of stuff... from the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments, to the Spiders and Scorpions Museum, plus a bagel/internet joint, and performances of Jesus Christ Superstar or Cats. A four member fife and drum corps even passed me in full period dress advertising performances of Don Giovanni.

Other hawkers chased me across the cobblestone streets handing out flyers with such enthusiasm that if I had no arms, they would be stuffing them in my mouth.

Of course, there is a reason for Prague's popularity. It is a beautiful and inexpensive city with much to offer, from castles and colorful architecture to the nighttime cityscape reflecting off the Ultara river. And as an added bonus, excellent Czech beer. The most famous of which is the real Budweiser, Budvar, which unlike the American version is full bodied and excellent. (It is too bad American Budweiser prohibits this from being sold in the US.)

I enjoyed my time in the city and met lots of new friends, but if you are planing a trip here, do yourself a favor and come in the spring or fall. Maybe then you can actually hear someone speak without an American accent. top

Evening falls over Prague Castle and the Vlatava River. The castle was built in the 9th century and is currently the official home of the Czech president.

Dresden, Germany

New World

timSebastian's infectious laughter and fun personality drew me all the way to Germany for an unplanned stop on my European itinerary. Michelle and I met him on our Himalayan trek and after he invited us to Dresden, I couldn't say no.

He played the perfect host, showing me around Dresden's old city, the small village where his parents live, and the mountains around Saxony. He even drove me to Berlin for the weekend for a tour. We dined in nice restaurants, drank in beer gardens, relaxed with his friends and girlfriend Maret, went to a late night student disco, and barbecued on his back porch. I learned more about Germany through my talks with him than I ever could have hoped to on my own.

Sebastian grew up in the former East Germany with two dreams - the first to cross into West Berlin through the Brandenberg Gate and the second to visit his relatives in Namibia. Since the fall of Communism and Reunification, he has accomplished both and now enjoys a lifestyle that he thought would never be possible 10 years ago.

It is a new world in East Germany, a place where construction cranes hang above every skyline. Sebastian pointed to shopping malls near the center of Dresden, "That one is five years old, this one is two years old, these are three years old." You can easily see the three eras of Dresden architecture - historic pre-war monuments, Communist style apartments, and buildings from the last ten years.

Not every German feels as excited as Sebastian about the changes in their country. Thousands lost their jobs in the transition, including Sebastian's father and Maret's mother. And while Sebastian's father now works for himself producing Christmas crafts in his home in Seiffen*, Maret's mother has suffered with 10 years of unemployment. With Germany's 15% unemployment rate and the disappearance of lifetime guaranteed employment, it is easy for me to understand the success of current Communist politicians in Berlin. They run for office with slogans similar to, "Are you better off now than you were ten years ago?" The answer is just as clear for Sebastian as it is for Maret's mother - those who have found success in the last ten years verses those who have found heartache.

* Seiffen is Sebastian's home town, a village of 3000 located near the Czech border in what used to be East Germany. His town is famous worldwide for making Christmas crafts - well known items such as wooden nutcrackers and "smoking man" incense burners. Check them out. top
Dresden's old section at night, painstakingly restored after total destruction during World War II. The Semperoper, Dresden's neo-Renaissance opera house opened in 1841. It was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt forty years later in 1985.

Berlin, Germany

Growth and Healing

timThe same thought popped into my head each time I passed a vacant lot in Berlin, "What was there before the war?" The areal photos from 1945 show almost every building leveled or left as a deserted shell. I couldn't believe I stood in the same city.

The war's presence is very much alive, even half a century later.

  • The destroyed former SS headquarters was left as an innocuous grassy hill after the war. But today, Germans remember the horrible Nazi war crimes crafted there with the open-air Topography of Terror exhibition.
  • For 79 years the elegant Moorish-styled Neue Synagogue served Berlin's Jewish population, but wartime bombing and post-war demolition left only a small part of the structure intact. Just recently third of the building was restored to its former glory, including the impressive dome that graced Berlin's skyline long ago. Now the building keeps the past alive with exhibitions on Berlin's pre-war Jewish life.
  • Every historic building downtown could probably have a line similar to "Destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943 and painstakingly reconstructed in 1955" somewhere in its written history. Reconstruction continues on even today, while other buildings will remain forever as memories or piles of rubble.
As my friend Sebastian points out, Berliners have lived in an occupied city for almost half a century. Post-war peace only truly came in the last decade. But memorials to the old times live on everywhere:
  • The cold war's Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between east and west, once hosted a permanent face off between Russian and US tanks. Though it is now no more than a pile of sandbags, thousands of visitors each year come to remember what was there only a few years ago.
  • The famous Berlin wall has been mostly destroyed, but a large portion was saved and painted with murals. It now too serves as a monument to history.
  • Parts of the old east was once dominated by ugly ten story apartment buildings and wide Communist-style avenues. The buildings are still there, but the neighborhoods have sprouted with scores of new cafes and have become fashionable places to live.
It is increasingly hard to tell what used to be east from what used to be west, especially with all of the construction in the former border area. Ten years ago Potsdamer Platz was virtually empty, but now it is full of new glass and steel structures, plus at the time I counted, 35 construction cranes building more. This new construction is like a suture on a wound, healing the city that has been destroyed and split apart for so long. top

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dude, Man...

timThe scent of pot smoke in a public place normally sends me scanning my surroundings like a prairie dog searching for predators, standing upright and alert, wondering with curiosity who is breaking the law. But it didn't take me long to loose that reaction in Amsterdam, as the smell wafts through every street and visitors roll joints in plain view of the police.

This afternoon is sunny and pleasant. I'm in an undistinguished coffee bar near the red light district, similar to the others found around the city. One menu offers drinks, another offers a variety of cannabis with different strengths and qualities, plus space cakes and other goodies. Most of the people around me are smoking joints like cigarettes, or in process of rolling a joint. But there is no stigma attached to this, for right next to me a German family is ordering drinks and laughing. I'm eavesdropping over two normal looking men in their late 50's as they talk about European history and the spread of Christianity.

And they've smoked a couple of joints during the time I've been sitting here.

The cafe looks like any other in Europe, with people enjoying an afternoon outside. Nobody looks particularly drug addled or stupid, and without the stigma, pot smoking seems normal.

Many activities that would seem deviant at home take place in the open here. Yesterday I waited for a friend outside of the popular Sex Museum, which displays historical pornography, humorous exhibitions, and a few images in a specially labeled room that I probably shouldn't describe here, as I don't want the web site banned by schools, libraries, and upset parents.

The crowd that entered the museum held my interest as much as the museum itself, mostly because they seemed so.... normal. Just regular people, ranging from giggling teenagers to elderly grandparents, viewing each exhibit with almost the same regularity as patrons in the Van Gogh Museum. Ever so often I'd remember where I was and laugh myself back to reality - like when I studied an exhibit of 25 dirty black and white photos from the 1930's while a retired couple stood next to me doing the same.

The city is open to almost whatever you want to do, and whatever that is can be done in the open.

My hostel has a beer machine.

Herbal stores sell psychedelic mushrooms in carefully measured packages, with suggested dosages and detailed descriptions of what each variety does and how long they last. (Four to five hours, excited buzz similar to...)

The Erotic Supermarket doesn't hide behind boarded windows, but displays its sex toys, latex clothing, and Tarzan outfits behind nicely decorated windows.

Tour guides now whisk retirees through the surprisingly upscale red light district, which now draws more tourists for free gawking than for paid sex. I can't imagine anything like this outside of Amsterdam - rows of women behind glass doors motioning to you to come forth, but displayed like sandwiches in the Febo fast food vending machine restaurant. I particularly enjoyed watching the group of sheepish 40-60 year old couples waiting in line for a live sex show. What is this world coming to?

The only time I've seen the police do anything was last night at 3 AM in a public square with people smoking joints all around me. I was told off by a police woman for drinking a beer in public - something that is 100% legal in most of Europe.

But I guess that is why I am in Amsterdam - to stretch my freedom in ways that I could never do at home, even if that means getting yelled at for the smallest offense. top

A vending machine restaurant in Amsterdam, selling food behind glass windows like the nearby red light district sells women. A vending machine restaurant in Amsterdam, selling food behind glass windows like the nearby red light district sells women. A neon sign in Amsterdam's Red Light District steps from a picturesque canal in a surprisingly upscale neighborhood. Here women behind glass windows project steamy looks to passers-by. Despite its seedy reputation, the area draws plenty of curious tourists just visiting for a look around. The night crowd walks through Amsterdam's Red Light District, located in a surprisingly upscale area of the city along a picturesque canal. Here women behind glass windows project steamy looks to passers-by. Despite its seedy reputation, the area draws plenty of curious tourists just visiting for a look around.

Bruges, Belgium

Clean Living

timI didn't notice what Bruges was so much as what it wasn't.

It wasn't big.

Nor was it a town where homeless youth loitered outside all night or where whores ply their trade out in the open.

It didn't have trash littered streets.

Nor did a perpetual party atmosphere rule, courtesy of coffee houses selling marijuana.

But what was Bruges? In short, the perfect opposite of the city I just arrived from, the antitheses of Amsterdam.

Bruges felt so clean and straight - a hyper-quaint medieval village with cute pointed spires, clock towers, narrow buildings, and graceful waterways.

In so many ways I loved Amsterdam for being dirty. But entering Bruges was like stepping out of a smokey bar into the fresh night air - I suddenly realized how polluted my lungs were and enjoyed a deep cleansing breath. top

Shop facades along Bruges' Markt square. A canal in old Bruges snakes between historic medieval buildings. Worn paving stones cover the street in the old center of Bruges. Attractive ironwork protected the old treasury in Bruges' Belfort belfry. Visitors can climb the belfr'Ys 366 stairs for an 83 high meter view of the town.. An overhead view of Bruges' 13th century medieval center.