Between Dresden and Prague

May 21 is Ascension day: a national holiday in Germany, and the weekend when Kirchen Tag takes place. Kirchen Tag means Church Day. But it's not just one day. It's 4.5 days of nothing but church related activities. These include talks, seminars, speeches, going to church, choirs, booths, some sorts of music, etc., and lots of crazies in the streets trying to push their beliefs on people.

This year, Kirchen Tag takes place in Bremen, and it is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of people will come here for this event. The entire city of Bremen is about 500 thousand people, most of which do not live in the city center, where the events will take place. So basically, downtown Bremen is going to be a mad house this weekend, chopped full of church goers from all over Germany. Thank the lord all mighty Buddha heavenly God our father Megatron Allah baby Jesus that I am escaping this whole thing. This weekend I'm fleeing to Dresden, Prague and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in between.

May 21 - Kirchen Tag actually started yesterday, and I had to work. So I saw some of the masses yesterday when they made my commute back from work take twice as long as usual. Anyways, today I started my journey. I took an early train to Dresden and got off in the Old City part. This is the part of the city that was obliterated in WWII. Now it's completely rebuilt. It's full of rebuilt old buildings, lots of which are famous and/or hold large collections of historical/priceless historical artifacts/art/etc. Most of which are supposed to be worth going into if you're into that sort of thing. I'm not usually.

Most of the city is just like every other German city I've seen. However, the old city of Dresden is very very pretty. It's probably because I was there in the spring with excellent weather, but I might just say it's the prettiest big city I've ever seen. I noticed this when standing in the middle of the main bridge that crosses the Elbe river in the middle of the city.

The new city is on the other side of the river and is completely different. It's full of artists, punks, normal people and everything in between. This side of the city has a lot of character. And by that I mean that there is a menagerie of different kinds of buildings, people and shops, most of which have some sort of graffiti on the walls. But really, there's graffiti everywhere. Of course, I walked around a bit. I found an old Jewish cemetery, lots of hidden art outside, old decrepit buildings.

Near Dresden there is also the Dresden High Magnetic Field Laboratory that I didn't find out about until I got to my hostel. It's a bit far out of town and probably would have closed by the time I got there, so I didn't get a chance to see it.

May 22 - The weather sucked today, so I decided to postpone the Elbe Sandstone Mountains for Sunday when I come back the same way. So I went to Prague. Everyone and their mother says that Prague is a great city. I have not heard one bad thing about it. So I decided to stay two days here, something I don't usually do. Well, I got there around noon, checked into a hostel and hit the town. I went into the old town first and then put my map away. I decided to just wander around, trying to stay where all the other tourists were, hoping that they would lead me to good places. I ended up going to most of the main attractions and then over the Charles Bridge, a foot bridge with lots of tourists and artists trying to sell their wares.

It was at this time that I could see huge dark clouds coming in over the edge of town and could even smell a storm brewing. I decided to keep going and then just jump into a cafe/store/building overhang when the rain starts. On the other side of the bridge I saw signs for the Prague castle, which is the main attraction of the city. So I headed up that way and up a long set of stairs. At that's when the rain hit. I was 3/4 of the way up the stairs when it really started coming down. Most of the good dry spots were already taken by other tourists caught in the rain, but I found a spot under a tree that was only half taken. Well, when it rains and hails so hard that you can't see 50 feet, a tree sometimes doesn't work so good as an umbrella. Not knowing how much longer it was going to last, and since I was already pretty wet, I decided to brave the full force of the weather in search of a better place. I got the rest of the way up the stairs and found a partially occupied building overhang that was pretty dry. About 5 minutes later it was over.

I finally came to the castle. Soaked and defeated, I bought a ticket into some of dry parts of the castle. First I went to a bathroom and rung out my shirt. Then I used my ticket and went through the castle. It was very disappointing. There was hardly anything there. Just a bunch of empty buildings. Sure there was some sort of history about the place, but I just didn't expect to pay to see nothing. Well, no big deal. It was only around 4 Euro and by the end I was much dryer.

Eventually I made my way back to the hostel. I got some beef stroganoff at a local restaurant (which is pretty much just like what I'm used to back home except with grilled onions instead of noodles and a big dollop of whipped cream in the middle), watched a movie on my laptop, and relaxed.

May 23 - Today I made a short trip out to the Prague market. Markets are always interesting to me. They contain real locals selling a huge variety of non-tourist merchandise. This one was full of about half Asians and half white people which were selling everything from underwear to weapons.

Then I went back into town and took a free walking tour (tips appreciated, of course) around the old city. This was run by a UK expat living there who shared a variety of interesting and funny facts about the area. We saw some of the same things I saw yesterday but most of it was new to me. It was much nicer to have someone there pointing things out than being on my own. I learned lots of things that probably aren't in the guidebooks; I didn't have one anyway.

By the end my feet were killing me. Over the last 3 days I've done so much walking, all of which was in my hiking boots. Looking back it doesn't seem like it was that much, but I guess my feet knew differently. So I listened to them and spent the rest of the day off of them. Except for one trip out to get food. This time it was goulash, which I was told I should try there. It was similar to the stroganoff, except with raw onions instead of grilled, no whipped cream and some sort of sliced bun/bread stuff to soak up the sauce.

May 24 - I caught the early train back to Germany and stopped in Kurort Rathen to see the Elbesandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains). This is a small area in Saxony that has lots and lots of sandstone pillars all mashed together which make up a "mountain range" of sorts. The most dramatic pillars are just next to Kurort Rathen. I bought a map of the hiking trails and planned out a route that hit all the highlights and ended where I started. There was no place in town to leave my backpack (sometimes the train stations have lockers) so I hiked a bit up the trail, away from town, and tried to find a place to stash it. Turns out, it was really hard to find a place that wasn't on someone's property and wasn't already swarming with tourists. I found a couple of places, but with so many people around, some of them going off trail to go climbing, I wasn't going to risk leaving my backpack anywhere. So I just carried it around my 4 mile loop. No big deal. I've carried more for longer distances plenty of times before.

When I got to the main part of the "mountain", the so called "Basteibrücke" there were several things that amazed me. First of course, was the view. Not the view away from the "mountain", the view towards the "mountain". I had never seen stone pillars like these before (see pictures). I guess I've never really seen any type of stone pillars before. They were pretty neat.

Second was the number of people up there. Hikers, climbers, kids, families, grandparents, from all over Europe. I hardly saw anyone on the way up there from Kurort Rathen. As I hiked further I realized there was a parking lot up there and that's where most of the people were coming from.

Last was how developed everything was. Sure there is a hotel and cafe at the top, just like everywhere in Europe, but something else surprised me. There I was at the top of the "mountain" and I come across a section of the mountain that was gated off. What the heck? I go a little further up the trail to find that you had to pay to get into that section! Well, they promised there would be the best views of the area. It was only 1.50 Euro, and I hadn't yet gotten to the really good views yet, so I didn't know what I was missing. Not wanting to miss anything, I paid the lousy 1.50 Euro and went in. Sure there were some different views, maybe even the best I saw for the rest of the day, but a close second were the free views further up the trail.

When I finished the hike I gladly went back to Dresden. My feet where done for. It wasn't the blister on my toe that did them in, it was just general feet tiredness. On earlier hiking trips I have traveled much father under harder terrain for longer with a heavier backpack. But for somereason city walking just doesn't agree with my feet.

Well, Dresden and Prague are very nice places. As I said before, the old town of Dresden is perhaps the prettiest city I've ever been in. However, there isn't a whole lot there that's different than anywhere else in Germany. And Prague is also nice, but I don't see why everyone thinks it's the best city in Europe. Apparently, what everyone fails to see are the things between these two lovely towns. Because nobody I talked to back in Bremen has even heard of the Elbesandsteingebirge, not even someone I talked to that is from Dresden. Well, it's best that these things stay (relatively) quiet anyways. There are already too many people over flooding the best places to visit.

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