On Beautiful Places in Kyrgyzstan:
Hiking in Shamsi Gorge
There are countless beautiful places in Kyrgyzstan – I often feel like every new valley and every new gorge offer some new and incredible view. Mountains, alpine pastures, shepherds and yurts galore. It was with some excitement, then, that I signed up for a Trekking Union trip to what is widely regarded as one of the prettiest valleys in the Chuy Valley that surrounds Bishkek: Shamsi.
Terezin Concentration Camp:
Visiting the “Model Ghetto”
History isn’t always pretty and so, by extension, with travel. There are so many dark parts to our collective pasts, whether you happen to be in Prague or America or Cambodia or… anywhere really. Learning about these things in a book, at school, tends to leave one with a logical understanding of the horrors of history. Being there in person, however, just makes the places and people involved a lot more real.
Which is exactly why I think its important to visit places like Terezin Concentration Camp. Because to walk the halls of a place where unthinkable systematic cruelty happened makes for an understanding so much more visceral than to read about the same. To know that THIS is where 140,000 were imprisoned and worked as slave labor for the Nazi state. The point from which over 70,000 of those people were sent on to their deaths at Auschwitz and Treblinka.
Aynalikavak Pavilion – The Ottoman Sultan’s Garden
Much like the magnificent Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, the AynaliKavak Pavilion stands as a forgotten reminder of Ottoman power in the middle of an otherwise quiet neighborhood on the Golden Horn. While places like the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia get millions of visitors each year, Aynalikavak gets barely a trickle of that. When I visited, in the height of the August tourism season, I was literally the ONLY tourist there.
Which speaks a little bit, actually, to both the history of the Aynalikavak Palace and why you would even consider visiting it today. Though once a grand and sprawling summer palace all along the shore of what is now the Hasköy neighborhood, the growth of the Ottoman Empire and the need for an increasingly large naval power saw the palace destroyed bit by bit to make room for expanding shipyards. The only reason the present-day Aynalikavak Pavilion was spared, really, was so that the Ottoman Sultans would have a place to rest and receive visitors while they were here to inspect the progress of the Ottoman Navy.
The Vienna Monastery you
SHOULD be Visiting.
Like most wine-drinking religion-enthusiasts, you’ll probably visit some sort of historic monastic abbey if you’re spending more than just a few days in Vienna. They have religion and culture, after all, including the sort of culture that leads to fermentation and eventually delicious monk-wrought wines. For most travelers, this will likely be the Melk Abbey way outside of Vienna at the end of the Wachau Valley. A closer and better option, however, is just outside of town on the edge of the Vienna Woods: Klosterneuburg.
Austrian Wines and Crumbling Castles:
A Wachau Valley Bike Tour
Vienna is not, on the face of it, Europe’s most active or adventurous destination. My average day in the Imperial City involves exploring lots of traditional coffee houses and the historic Old Town, and only very occasionally something like a bike ride through the city center.
Having the chance to get out of town to spend the day biking along the Danube with two friends and a bunch of awesome strangers, stopping occasionally to ascent an ancient castle or taste the freshest and best white wines the Wachau Valley could produce… how could I POSSIBLY turn that down?!
Being so close, I showed up to Austria on my first trip uninformed and assuming there would be just as much delicious hearty heavy beer in the Österreich as in the German region of Bavaria just a few hours away. Had I been a bit more prepared or even just a touch more observant, of course, I would have seen that while Austria has any number of delicious beers there is a much important alcohol to the Average Austrian: wine.
Czech Beer and Bars in Prague:
An Absolute Beginner’s Guide
As I imagine many of you are already aware, beer in the Czech Republic is kind of a big deal. They didn’t quite invent it (an honor ascribed to the Sumerians around 5,000 years ago), but they have done a lot to refine it into the delicious joy that it is today and to introduce the lovely little thing called a Pilsner into the world. Perhaps you’ve heard of the original?
Though Pilsner Urquell may no longer be the dominant beer on the Czech brewing scene, it was the first pale lager ever brewed. Staropramen, at least to my entirely unscientific understanding, seems to have eclipsed Pilsner Urquell on the international market (even if not domestically in the Czech Republic) but even if you don’t know the beer I’d bet that as a non-Czech reading this there is one other name that will stand out even more.
Vienna Coffee House Culture
There may well be any number of things I appreciate more than a historic cafe with a cozy atmosphere and superbly tasty coffee, but anytime I’m in Vienna the memory of those others seems to get lost in the search for the perfect Wiener Melange.
Vienna Coffee House Culture has its origins in the Siege of Vienna by Ottoman armies in 1683, but many of the modern trappings like marble tables / newspapers from around the world / the freedom to linger as long as you like date from closer to the heyday of Viennese Cafes at the beginning of the 19th century. Trotsky and Klimt and Hitler and Freud all frequented these establishments, which were the social heart of the city of Vienna and so by extension the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 2011, UNESCO even listed Viennese Coffee Culture as intangible world heritage – to be protected and preserved.
Montparnasse Tower: The More Beautiful View of Paris
The biggest problem with places like the Eiffel Tower is of course that, once you get to the top, you have the whole beautiful skyline spread out in front of you… except for the viewpoint itself. There are plenty of reasons to skip the tall buildings altogether, to be sure, but if you do decide to go for it it can be hard to find a cityscape that includes those most iconic landmarks!
This then is the strongest case for visiting Paris’ Montparnasse Tower, and the main reason I wanted to go. (It also didn’t hurt that I was being paid for the pictures and that there was free champagne for my girlfriend and I but, you know, photos come first!) Walking out of the elevator onto the 56th floor of the tower, the first impression you get is of a touristified bar and the attached gift shop. A few steps further, however, you’re looking at this: