Grant McWilliams

Travel Trip Journals

Journals

Trip journals are trip specific blogs. That is a blog about a specific trip that I've taken. I have them ordered first item first which is backward from a typical blog because it makes it easier to read about the trip from start to finish. Granted that also makes it more difficult to read the latest news when I'm on vacation because the most recent entry (the last one) will be last. But, since most people don't actually get around to reading the Trip Journal until after I'm back I think that will be ok.

Also there's a ton of them missing, this article will explain why.

For breakfast we went to the Waffle House which is a southern chain of breakfast cafes. It was then I realized that the south did in fact break away during the civil war and become a seperate country. The ladies that worked in the Waffle House were mostly missing their teath (the further south you go the fewer teath they grow…) and had accents so strong I could hardly understand them. At one point one said she need a billy goat or bush hog to get her going. The way she said it was hilarious so I laughed and pretended I understood her when in reality she might as well been speaking hebrew or something…

The reason we came down early before the wedding was so we could go to Asheville to see Biltmore. Iimg_5720-x planned a trip in 97 to see Biltmore but my daughter was born with medical problems and we didn’t go. I love French architecture and the Biltmore house is probably the best example of it in the U.S. It’s also an insanely large house on a very large estate. George Vanderbilt was a scholar and traveler so he wanted what he saw in Europe here in the states so he had a French Chateaux built in North Carolina. The area around Biltmore reminds me of the hills around Chinon or maybe the foot of the Austrian Alps around Neuschwanstein castle. In the end it’s a nice place to put an estate. We arrive and enter the 175,000 square foot house and immediately realize that even though it looks French on the outside this is an American house. It’s very easy to compare it to Versaille but that wouldn’t be a fair comparison because Versaille cost as much as half of the yearly income of every resident in France for one year to build. I doubt that Biltmore cost that much because the interior isn’t nearly as ornate. That’s fine because Versaille is really overdone. Who needs gold plated walls anyway? Biltmore is much easier to take than some of the French Chataeuxs but it’s also more apparent that although rich the Biltmores weren’t kings. Overall the Biltmore house was an enjoyable experience and I recommend anyone going there if they’re interested in that sort of thing. If you always wanted to go to the Loire Valley in France but just couldn’t make it this may suffice. If you do go make sure you check out the rose gardens and other parts of the estate.

We left Biltmore and ate at the Texas Roadhouse which was pretty good. We’re realizing very quickly that we should only be ordering one plate for both of us because the portions are huge. I think we carried half our food (at least) out in a to-go box. Our waiter said Statesville was only about 40 minutes away but we soon found out it was almost two hours. Maybe he just never leaves Asheville and doesn’t know…

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We flew out to Charlotte NC via Dallas. The best price ($208 plus tax) was on a plane that left at 11:58pm and got in at 10 am in the morning. This seemed like a great plane because we’d get to sleep and the journey would go faster. That would be a great plan as long as I don’t take into consideration the time zones ( I didn’t). It looked like on paper we’d be on the plane for 6 hrs to Dallas so we’d get some sleep. I should know better because I’ve flown to dallas many times. We were on the plane 3 hrs then had a layover. I think my head is really sensitive to cabin pressure because sometimes I feel sick on a plane and sometimes I don’t for no apparent reason. The one I’m sick on may be a perfectly smooth flight and the one that I’m ok on could be rough. Anyway the three hrs to Dallas ended up being three really long hours because I didn’t feel well and had to make a run for the bathroom. The second plane was perfect and I slept on it. We landed in Charlotte and got a cab to the car rental agency where we picked up a car and drove to Asheville NC, the home of the largest private residence in America. They should warn you not to drive after not sleeping for a day but they don’t. I got about halfway there and pulled off the road and slept for a few hours before driving on. We got to our motel 6 (I’m cheap) and slept some more. Stomaches were growling so we headed out to a china buffet. I really needed to get to an internet access point but since we’re in America this seems almost impossible. The Quality Inn across the street was advertising free high speed interenet so I went over and asked if I could use it. I think they thought I was one of their guests because they said yes and later asked me to come back at 6 for breakfast! Anyway the wireless on my laptop isn’t working but they had a lamp with an RJ45 port on the bottom (no joke!) which was hot so I plugged in. I left my printout of important phone numbers at home so I got into my email and got the ones I really needed. Tired I returned to the hotel and slept.

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We decided to turn in the rental car in Charlotte and take a train to Washington DC for two reasons, it was actually cheaper (thanks to a 20% off promo code I found on the internet for Amtrak) and it’s a pain to have a car in D.C. We’re used to using the metro to get around anyway so it wasn’t much of a problem. The only problem was we needed to turn in our rental at 1pm and our train came at 1:50 am the next morning! We start off on the wrong foot by thinking we’re in Europe and started searching for left luggage facilities. In Europe you can leave your luggage places for a few euro. The man in the library recommended we try the grayhound bus station. They did have lockers but only about 10 for the 1000 or so people there so we took a taxi to the train station where we checked our bags in ahead of schedule. We then walked back to the city center and ate dinner an an Italian restaraunt which wasn’t bad. We were trying to kill time so we asked the waitress if there was a movie theatre around, there wasn’t but she gave us tips on how to get to one. So armed with a bus schedule we head for the other end of town to watch a movie. We end up watching two movies which took us to about midnight. We called a taxi to pick us up and waited the 25 minutes needed for them to get there. Then we waited another 10 minutes. We couldn’t call them again bacause the theater was now closed and the phone was inside. We had about 50 minutes left before our train left with our luggage. Since I don’t have a cell phone we headed for the main street to see if we could find a pay phone. We didn’t but we did find an all night diner and the man behind the counter let us use his phone to call again. It would only be 10 minutes this time. We wait 10 minutes and no taxi shows up. I’m getting ready to make this a really expensive night and offer a bunch of money to one of the people eating just to take us to the train station. Right before I did that the taxi showed. Thankfully it only took us 15 minutes to get to the station so we had about 20 to spare.

It’s been about 10 years since I’ve ridden an Amtrak train so it was interesting to contrast them with my more recent train experiences from Europe. I’ve ridden Englands worthless trains, the French TGV, German ICE, Italy’s Eurostar and many other eastern European trains. I have to say the Amtrak really isn’t bad other than the fact that it’s slow and only comes by once or twice a day. The seats are comfortable and spacious, the food isn’t bad and the service is pretty good. In Europe once you get on that train everything else is up to you. With Amtrak they keep an eye on you to make sure you get off at the right stop. They will wake you up too if you’re sleeping.

Anyway sleeping was about as comfortable as sleeping on an airplane but without the headrests that wrap around your head. So I didn’t get a lot of sleep but arrived anyway in D.C. at about 10:00 am.

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I found a pastry shop today and bought some filled doughnut looking things. They had a strange filling in them that was fruit but there was another odd taste. We’d find out later from another baker that spoke 4 english words (which was 4 more than the first one) and she pointed to the pastries and said “alcohol” when I tried to buy them. I’m guessing that strange flavor was alcohol of some sort. Weird, beer in doughnuts.

Our plan was to take the train or bus to Wiliczka (via-leech-ka) to see the salt mines. As we were standing in the train station a man came up to us soliciting his services. I saw his accomplice near the door when I came in. You can always tell these people because their the only ones in the train station not moving. Everyone else is trying to buy a ticket or get to a platform, they just stand trying to make eye contact. Anyway his deal was he’d drive us to Wieliczka for 160 zloty ($55). This seemed a bit steep to me but the train schedules weren’t making any sense and both guidebooks were really vague about what to do once I got there so I told the man it was a deal and we followed him out of the station. He drove a early 90s Mercedes and the whole experience reminded me somewhat of Fernando in Mexico City driving us around. On the way out of town he started pointing out various places of interest and telling me history that I’d already read. We stopped at Schindlers factory and went in. Even though there isn’t much to see but a movie with Schindler in it and the stairs and office in the movie it was still neat going there and knowing it was the real factory that saved so many people. I’m sure they’ll make it into a museum some day. Back on the road for about 20 minutes and we arrived. Our driver started earning his keep fast. The line to get in was about 1 hr long and our English tour started in 30 minutes so he put us in line and took off somewhere. In about 10 minutes he came back with tickets. Apparently he does this a lot and knows the ticket sellers. He says sometimes they let him barge in line and sometimes not. Today they did. He didn’t have enough money to pay for the tickets so he had to wander around to find someone that would convert Euros to Zloty. He really went out of his way to get us in. We made our tour which started out with a 360 stair decent into the earth. Thoughs of Jules Verns “Journey to the center of the Earth” came to mind. Our guide spoke English but her accent was really strained. Polish people sound like chihauhas when speaking English. Maybe the sounds are hard to say but they sound very tense.

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We start once again foraging for food. I find at yet another small grocery yogurt cups. I’m getting desperate so I’m willing to eat bacteria infected milk for breakfast. It was much better tasting than the yogurt we have in the states but still no replacement for a good burrito or Paris croissant.

Before the second world war there were 65,000 jews living in Krakow, after the ware there were 200. There used to be an actual second city where all the Jews lived called Kazimierz (kazsh-meer-ezsh). Krakow has grown to the point that it engulfed Kazimierz and it is now a district. I guess it was hard to figure out who should own the buildings there after the war because there just wasn’t enough jews left to claim it. It’s sort of a run down area but is starting to come alive as people move back into it. We spent the day wandering around there and didn’t see much to take pictures of. We were told by the two Polish guys on the train that we should go down there and eat at a Jewish restaurant. The idea of trying to order food that I’ve never seen before in a language that I can’t speak isn’t appealing so we eat dinner back in the city center. Many years ago there was a wall surrounding the city with the Wawel castle at one end. The wall was taken down by the Austrians when Krakow was part of the Austria-Hungary empire. The Austrians seemed to think there was no use for it and took all but one small section down. Where the wall used to be is one long park or “planty” area as they call it. It’s really nice because they’ve put benches along all the paths so if you need to get anywhere in Krakow you walk allong the planty area instead of walking next to the street. Sometimes it’s almost a block wide and other times it’s only 30 ft. You could start at Wawel castle and walk all the way around old town and back to the castle without ever leaving the planty area.

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Our first day in Krakow started by Jade and I foraging for food. Bernadette said there was a supermarket to the right of our apartment so that’s where we went. We found a few min-mart types of places, a nice park with fountain, a tiny grocery that had croissants but no supermarket that would have cereal. On the way back we found a slightly larger grocery that has small bags of cereal and milk. A welcome suprise was the fact they give plastic bags to carry your grocery items in. We’ve gotten accustomed to bringing the day bag because most of the eastern countries don’t give you bags, they expect you to bring your own. The croissants weren’t too bad in a non-French way. I guess about the quality I’d get in America which after spending a month in Paris were unexceptable. I think I’ll starve in these countries because I don’t get my burritos for breakfast and I can’t have my second breakfast (croissants) either. Anyway after breakfast we walked toward the city center and found a Polish fast food place so we ate lunch. Piper and I had a big sausage with onions, Jade had fried chicken patty and Natalya had Pierogies. People here don’t speak English at all. The order process is a little weird. We point at the menu and tell her how much, she has us pay and gives the receipt to another lady who takes it into the next room to a food counter. When the food is done the same lady comes back, picks up the food and yells it out at which time you’re supposed to motion to her that it’s yours. You’d better be able to pronounce your food in Polish or you might not eat. The rest of the day we spent in the old center of the city.

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We spend the day on the train with two young guys from Poland. One spoke ok English and the other spoke excellent English. We talked about the language and America. The one had taken a Greyhound from San Diego to Chicago and vowed never to do it again. He also said the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC is excellent.. He saw it before going to see Auschwitz in his own country which seemed backwards. We get to Katowice 20 minutes late and our connecting train is supposed to leave in 5 minutes. We jump off the train and run under the overpass to the first train that says Krakow and get on it. It’s a very rough rattly regional train that gets us to Krakow 25 minutes late. We manage to get a fair taxi for 15 zloty ($3) to our apartment and Bernadette a pretty red headed Polish girl is waiting for us. Our apartment is really kind of fun. It’s one of those things that’s so peculiar that you’re just willing to live with it like French cars with gear shifts in the dash or Swedish cars with ignition switches on the floor. We enter the courtyard with is very pretty and head for a building at the back. Inside is a wooded crate of an elevator that can only handle 35 kg so we put 2 bags in it and carry the rest up the stairs. The stairs are bare wood and very rustic like they were in a barn. We climb, and we climb and we climb some more until we get to the attic. The two bags are waiting for us. Our bodies were so tired by this time I could see it possible to accidentally fall over the rail and plunge to a violent end at the bottom of the stairs. Thankfully this doesn’t happen. Inside the apartment you are very aware that you are in the attic. The floors are a dark stained hardwood like Cherry or Walnut and there are dark exposed beams in the ceiling and walls. There are also exposed wooden poles supporting the ceiling. We have one bedroom instead of two like we thought. These Europeans count funny. In America a two room apartment would probably have two bedrooms, in Europe it has two actual rooms not including the bathroom. So you take the number of advertised rooms, subtract the number of bathrooms and kitchens and what you have left is the bedrooms. If this number is 0 you sleep in the kitchen and if it’s less than 0 you sleep in the bathtub.

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It rained like crazy friday night while we were eating dinner at a restaurant. When we returned we found that our roof was leaking but only in one small spot. That spot was exactly overtop my running laptop! After drying it out all day Saturday and this morning it tries to boot but makes all kinds of beeping sounds and Linux says there are tons of harddrive errors. I’m guessing the hard drive bit the dust at the very least. So this means I may not be uploading any more pictures before I come home. Thankfully this trip I brought an external harddrive that I backed up all my pictures on as well as uploading half of them here. I also have them a third time on flash cards in a waterproof case. Do you think I’ve lost data before???

I told the owners and they’ve appologized and are fixing the roof tomorrow and brought by cookies. That doesn’t make this trip any cheaper for me beause this week has now cost me $2000 if I have to replace my laptop. I may just buy a harddrive and see if that works. It’s a little ipod style harddrive and a 60 Gig costs $175 so it’s still not cheap. Anyway there will be more blog entries but maybe not pictures. I’m copying all of my pictures off of flash cards onto my USB harddrive so I have them in two places.

Grant

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We ate the last of our food and the kids were starving but I couldn’t do anything about it. Had this been Budapest or Ljubljana I would have sent Natalya out for food but none of us new Prague so if she got lost she couldn’t even call me and I couldn’t contact her so we waited. I ate a dried out strudel to get strength and we ventured outside. There was a fruit market across the street with bananas and nectarines. Had I known this we would have at least had fruit. It was Sunday so not much was open. We found a pizzeria on the corner that cooked up a Hawaiian pizza for $5. One of the ingredients listed was tomato but I wanted to keep things simple so I didn’t have them taken off. We got the pizza home and it didn’t have tomatoes on it so apparently they were referring to the sauce. Good thing I left it on. I went back to bed. The walk to the end of the block wiped me out. The kids ate and I finally got a few hours sleep. The next day was our last day in Prague so we needed to get out to buy our train tickets. I actually slept most the night but still didn’t feel good enough to get out in the morning. I was eating whole bananas and drinking 6 oz of water at time but I still couldn’t get away from the bathroom. At 1pm we headed for the train station. We arrived at the main train station and some of the stuff I wrote about Budapest having big wonderful buildings that are about to fall down could be said here as well. The train station is a monstrosity but looks like it’s not even being used anymore. We did find a door open and inside there was this wonderful domed ceiling and elegant stairway downstairs but no ticket agents or people waiting for trains, how strange of a main train station. We venture downstairs and see a bit more life. There was a casino and more stairs to the Metro. I ask an information person and he says go downstairs again so we do. Two floor underground in the basement are the ticket agents and shops selling food, drinks etc.. So you have this big beautiful train station and the only part they use is the basement. The rest is slowly crumbling into nothing, sad. We stand in line for about 30 minutes without getting to the window. We also realize we didn’t bring our passports so we ride the metro back to get them. We come back via metro and stand in line for another 30 minutes just to have the ticket window close when we get there. We choose another line and stand for 10 minutes then notice there are windows open 24hrs and think this is a horrible waste of time when we could use the last 6hrs to see the city so we leave the station with the intent to return when there’s nobody standing in line.

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We had planned on catching a train to a town I can’t pronounce let alone write to see a castle built by an architect over 40 years for his wife. That just sounded too romantic to pass up but time has run out and the time machine still isn’t working right (it only goes forward in time and takes 365 days to go one year) so we decide to stick around and see what we could. We also needed to pick up train or boat tickets to Prague. There is a street in Budapest that we call the Paris Street because it looks just like a boulevard in Paris. We started walking on this street away from the river to Hero’s square and the city park. There are so many places in Budapest that we just didn’t get to because we ran out of time that we need to come back and spend more time. This street is beautiful and I’d like to know more about it’s history. Closer to the river it’s lined with beautiful old buildings that are all restored. The House of Terror is on it which is the former residence of the Nazi and Soviet secret police. I really wanted to tour this museum but didn’t get to it. The section of the street further away (and closer to the city park and hero’s square) is lined with huge mansions that have also been restored. I want to know who lived in these houses as they’re quit amazing. Something I’ve mentioned about Budapest before is the number of unrestored buildings. For every beautifully restored mansion, museum or church there are 10 that haven’t been restored. I took a few pictures of them. One had a very nice Art Nouveau awning over the stairs and columns lining the front entrance. People stared at me for taking pictures of an old wreck. It will probably be taken down. I think it was at least 4000 sq ft.

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Travel Trip Journals