Tagged: interrailing

Lots of life but not much art: Florence part I

I had been in Florence two days before I was able to bask in front of the glory of the Duomo, and almost a week before I set foot in the Uffizi.  I was a History of Art and Architecture graduate on virgin territory, and I was on a mission, so what went wrong?

A whole lot of LIFE as it turns out, a.k.a that scythe that cuts through everything when you’re making other plans.  When the story left off I was in Verona where I had opted to stay for only one night as it was fairly small, and I had struggled to find cheap accommodation.  This problem had persisted when I had attempted to book a hostel for Florence, irritated and pressed for time I booked a less than salubrious looking hostel in the city centre for just one night (as it was fully booked after this . . . as was everywhere else), under the assumption I would have time in the evening to book something for the following nights.  I wasn’t sure at this point if Florence was just fully booked for the weekend or if Italy in general wasn’t particularly forthcoming with cheap accommodation.

Determined to do a quick loop of Verona during the day time, I forget my hostel woes, dropped my case at the station and headed off for a whistle-stop tour before my afternoon train.  Sightseeing was successfully accomplished, minus one battery dead camera and some mosquito bites, I headed back to the train station.  So far so good.  But then: my train got delayed.  Then it got delayed a bit more.  Along with every southbound train out of Verona (including, I was amused to note, the Orient Express) my train was delayed for a full 3 hours – longer than the actual journey was supposed to take.  So a 3 hour delay plus a few hours on the train meant I arrived in Florence after dark.

From experience I know that major train stations tend to be in unsavoury areas, and I have heard many a hostel tale about bags being stolen at stations – so I was less than happy.  As a girl travelling alone I try my best to avoid arriving in unfamiliar places after dark.  But there I was in Florence long after nightfall, at a train station that did not appear to be the central station (in fact it was the secondary out of town one, which was a pity, because my hostel was within easy walking distance of the other one – possibly its only good feature).  I was panicking a bit at this point as it was after 9 with no apparent taxis or buses, and my hostel had strict check in hours up until 10pm.  When I had called ahead from my delayed train to let them know I would be late, they said it was no problem, up until 10pm . . .

But then I did get a taxi, and arrived tired and slightly unnerved just before 10pm.  What I then encountered might be described as The Worst Hostel I Have Ever Stayed In and perhaps The Worst Hostel In Florence.  I’ve stayed in lots of hostels, so I don’t use this description lightly.  This place was the pits.  The furniture was flea market, but not in a good way – and so was the mish-mash of old blankets and bedding.  My ageing iron bed was made up with an old, badly stained throw of indeterminate colour which may or may not have been better than the old sleeping bags on the other beds.  The dorm I was in was a through room to bathroom as well as the 4 bed room next door which didn’t seem overwhelmingly reassuring to me either security or sleep wise.  The guy running the place gave a perfunctory tour but didn’t offer any maps or information on the city or hostel, but I wasn’t terribly bothered by this at the time as I just wanted to decompress and book a room somewhere else for the next night.

10pm comes and goes.  ‘Reception’ is locked up and the staff leave.  I have no idea if this is common or not, but I haven’t encountered this before.  The doorbell begins to ring.  Then the phone in the (locked) office begins to ring.  Then the doorbell again, then the phone.  Lots uncomfortable looks exchanged between hostel strangers.  Finally, standing awkwardly in front of the hostel intercom emblazoned with the note ‘Do NOT respond to the doorbell, guests will be let in by a member of staff’ I make the call to answer the intercom and let what it presumably a very upset new guest into the building.  It’s maybe 11pm by this point and I’m feeling pretty strung out myself, but also full of empathy because I know very well that it could have been me ringing doorbells and phones to no response if the hand of fate had delayed me just a little more.  The thought of this REALLY freaks me out by the way, I have no idea what I would do in an alien, booked up city late on a Friday night if my accommodation had disappeared/closed entry etc.  I hope I am never in this situation.

Anyway.  I checked the new guest in after guiltily asking to see his reservation and apologetically showed him around the hostel.  By this point it was looking less like an actual hostel and a lot more like a load of second hand beds crammed into an old apartment.  This place was astonishingly unprofessional.  As all of the keys were locked up in the office and the new guy urgently needed to go and meet a friend I handed over my keys and he promised to leave them in a plant pot in the morning for me to pick up.

Excitement momentarily over I sat down with my laptop to finally start scouting out some hopefully better accommodation for the next night.

I was seriously tired by this point.

Then.  The doorbell began to ring again.  Then the phone, then the doorbell.  So we let this person into the building as well – and yes, it’s another new guest.  Incidentally both of these guys had emailed the hostel in advance to let them know that they would be arriving late, but I guess these messages had BOTH been ignored.  This is uncaring and unprofessional almost beyond belief.  Most hostels will still charge for the first night regardless of whether a guest turns up or not, but the money is the least important part of this.  Ignoring emails and refusing to cater for the arrival time of your guests, especially when they warn you in advance is a bad and irresponsible way to run a business.  Irresponsible behaviour like this could put young travellers after dark, on a budget, on unfamiliar ground, laden with luggage etc. in a very dangerous situation.

Anyway.

I was really, seriously, reaching-the-edge-of-my-limit-tired.  But the night wasn’t over yet.

I was still trying to book a hostel.  But everywhere that wasn’t an inconvenient amount of km out of the city, or reviewed as a flea infested basement with triple bunks, was fully booked up.  Even some of the poorly rated hostels like the one I was currently in were completely full for the weekend.

Around this time a guy who I was sharing a room with started talking to me.  I decided to give up on the hostel booking until the morning when I could approach it with a clear head.  It turned out that my talkative roommate was a sculptor who was aiming to hit up Florence’s finest art, architecture and sculpture.  Now, I’ve worked alongside sculptors in the past – and my roomie also showed me photographs of some gilding work he had done (I have also some experience of this which I blogged about) and I can happily talk about art and architecture for hours.  The conversation was flowing despite a few creepy vibes from the guy, but I was unbelievably tired.  The time was pushing 1.30am and I really needed to sleep so I made my apologies and said I must go to bed.

I wash, change, put on a jumper as the room is so cold,and turn out the light.  The two girls also sharing our room have gone out to a bar.  Despite being so exhausted from the trials of the day my mind needs a little longer to shut down, and also the cold is kind of distracting – not to mention the enduring mosquitos.  I toss and turn a little bit.

* THREE GUESSES WHAT HAPPENED NEXT *

‘Angela, are you awake?’

Mistake caused by the mind fog of tiredness here I actually answered.

‘Angela, I have a question for you,

I would very much like

. . . . to kiss you?’

So!  Yeah.  A guy who I had only just met hit on me WHEN I WAS IN BED.

A rejection and an awkward conversation followed, coupled with some total disbelief on what had just happened.  And I have to say I only managed to fall into a deep, but not particularly restful sleep after the two girls returned from the bar.

The escapades continued the next day, but I’ll pick up on that in my next post.  Safe travels!

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Ugly Salzburg, myth and reality

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Kudos to you if you are able to identify which scene from the Sound of Music this shot features in: view of the Hohensalzburg Fortress as seen from the gardens of the Mirabell Palace

Imagine ‘Salzburg, Austria, in the last golden days of the thirties’ we are told in the open scenes of The Sound of Music, just after the bit where Julie Andrews is warbling and frolicking in the mountains.  To me Salzburg looked a lot like a place which had started life in a fairytale and somehow hatched into a real town.  An improbably picturesque town nestled in the Alps, birthplace to Mozart and home to some wedding cake worthy iced baroque and renaissance buildings, Salzburg was a sweet little stop on my journey.

On my first short walk (Salzburg is quite small) around town I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.  Every single street I wandered down, square I turned into, alleyway I cut through was the most charming, attractive, fairytale-esq thing I’d ever seen.  If there was a place I could stand in the historic centre and not take a beautiful photograph, then I didn’t find it – everything here was gorgeous.  I think something that might prove my point best would be this photograph of a Mc Donald’s sign:

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This photograph was taken on the historic shopping street Getreidegasse where each shop was obviously under strict orders to comply with rules about appearance to keep it looking like a dream.  On a whim I sent this photograph to my friend who promptly informed me that Salzburg has a high suicide rate; it’s so beautiful in comparison to the mundane drudgery of everyday life that it makes people want to kill themselves, apparently*.

While I was wandering around it occurred to me that historic Salzburg can’t look that different to how it did in the 1930s, from the horse drawn carriages and the ornate signs to the well heeled bourgeois tourists planning to go to evening Mozart concerts, Salzburg is a perfectly preserved pearl.  If you want to maintain the illusion make sure you don’t go anywhere near the train station a.k.a the ‘real’ part of town which I arrived into.  I kind of already knew this anyway, but my rail travels in Europe have confirmed the fact, that train stations are almost always in seedy parts of town (and this is an absolute guarantee if you are arriving after dark, alone, or in a place you have never been to before).  Salzburg was no exception with it’s ugly modern blocks of flats and train station drunks, but that’s ok, because these things are what make a place real – not just some sickly sweet illusion of a town.

I was only compelled to photograph the good stuff on this occasion though, so here we go:

I have to give a shout out to my hostel here for playing The Sound of Music every single night at 7pm, every single time to a rapt audience in a packed room.  I don’t know if there was something rewarding about spotting the sights we had been rambling around during the day on a big screen, or if it was the tunes, the universality of the (historically inaccurate) story amongst an international crowd . . . but it was thoroughly enjoyed by all present, and not in the least an amusing prelude to schnapps in bar.

*I’ve just done a little googling on this subject out of curiosity and I came up with this excerpt from ‘The Voice Imitator’ by Thomas Bernhard which suggests that, ‘As is well known, Salzburg has the highest suicide rate among schoolchildren in the world.  The more highly thought-of the beauty of a city is . . . the higher the suicide rate, and not, as previously assumed, the reverse.’  Beauty comes from within, it seems.

A film for Bloomsday

Vienna after hours

Vienna after hours

Happy Bloomsday everyone!  As you know I went to university in Dublin, and today is a rather important date in Dublin’s calendar as 16th June 1904 was when the events of James Joyce’s most famous creation ‘Ulysses’ took place.  ‘Bloomsday’ gets it’s name from the protagonist of the novel, Leopold Bloom, who takes an epic journey around Dublin mimicking Homer’s Odyssey.  In real life 16th June was the day that James Joyce met his wife Nora Barnacle.  Unfortunately I’m not apt to give a great summary of Ulysses because I have not read it (!) and I’m not a huge fan of Joyce or modernism in general.  Unsurprisingly I had no particular wish to take a term long course on Ulysses where a chapter was painstakingly picked apart each week.  I’d consider that a slow death indeed, although plenty of people thought this was pretty much the pinnacle of their Dublin English degree experience.  Let’s just say my time for Joycean enjoyment has not yet arrived, maybe I’ll think Ulysses is the greatest thing ever in 20 years time.  Maybe.  In which case I’ll regret my time spent as a literature student in Dublin dilly dallying with other literary greats and  cringing every time an extract from Finnegan’s Wake or a story from Dubliner’s would appear on a reading list.  As an addendum to this I would like to add, incidentally, that I have read James Joyce’s love letters to Nora Barnacle (or rather, I had them read to me by a significant other who thought this was highly romantic amusing) – and I can certainly vouch for their entertainment value, as much as they are in the literary gutter 😉

Anyway, I digress.  ‘Before Sunrise’ directed by Richard Linklater is a film which takes place on the 16th June, and it is peppered with references to Ulysses.  While on a train from Budapest American student Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on her way to Paris, and he talks her into getting off the train in Vienna to explore the city with him.  The pair wander around the city as it begins to get dark and have a series of encounters with the locals.  Over the course of the evening as the sun begins to set the pair get to know each other better and become close, gradually ending up in a park before they have to part at sunrise so that Jesse can catch his flight home.  They vow to meet again at the train station in six months time, but do not exchange phone numbers or contact details.  I was just about to watch this film again because I have been thinking a lot of my own summer travels.  I would like to say ‘impending’ summer travels, but they still seem so far away . . . in reality, 7 weeks, depending on my work situation (unstable).  I know that rationally speaking 7 weeks is nothing, but it might as well be 7 years – it seems like an eternity.  I am going to Berlin for the long term, but I am planning several weeks of pre-Berlin travel with an open schedule.  I would dearly love to go to Vienna, where this film is set, so it seemed like an appropriate teaser.  I will also probably be travelling by train, so again this is a good film for stirring my imagination.  Obviously ‘Before Sunrise’ is your ideal interrailing scenario.  Meet an attractive foreigner on the train, get off in an appropriately romantic European city in the summertime, and let the adventure begin.

It is pure coincidence that I have decided to watch this film today of all days, in a weird and tenuous way I feel like my past (Dublin) and imminent future (trains, Europe, Vienna?) have come together here.  Both stories involve exploring a city (Dublin/Vienna) over the 16th/17th of June.  Both involve visits to a graveyard.  Jesse’s real name is James and, like Joyce, he spent a long time wandering around Europe.  I suspect there may be a few more links, but as I haven’t read the book and I’ve just lifted these facts from IMDb – you’ll have to spot them on your own.

For those of you in Dublin, or otherwise Ulysses enthusiasts I hope you enjoyed your day and celebrated appropriately!