Tagged: travelling

Venetian dreams

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“There is still one of which you never speak.’

Marco Polo bowed his head.

‘Venice,’ the Khan said.

Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’

The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’

And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Venice is a bizarre place, there’s really nothing quite like it and I would struggle to compare it to anywhere else I have ever been.  The first and fairly immediate dose of weird is having to get on a boat to go anywhere, and it was with abject puzzlement that I got onto a a little ferry, ‘vaporetto’ straight out of the train station.  I mean, I knew that Venice was built on the water, but never having encountered this sort of set up before it felt quite strange.

Since the island of Venice itself is hellishly expensive and requires some serious advanced booking at all times (there is no off season here) we opted to stay on the little resort island of Lido.  This suited us fairly well since it had a beach that stretched the length of the island and the weather was still good enough that this was a soothing place to walk along and nurse our Bellini hangovers.  Lido was actually an excellent little find which I would recommend as a holiday spot in its own right.  During the summer season it attracts 30,000 holiday makers and the entire island is catered to this summer trade with holiday homes and hotels making up the majority of the islands real estate.  As it was, the army of little beach huts had been long locked up by our arrival and the place was looking a little desolate.  The recession also seems to have got its hooks into the industry here, Venice might never be short of a wealthy visitor but Lido was supporting more than one derelict hotel.  Sad times.  I would love to holiday here in the summer though.

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Far from the madding crowd, empty Lido beach in the off season

When we did venture onto the main island we were greeted with a great mish-mash of architectural styles.  Venice is famous for this mix, a place where east meets west.  The influence of the renaissance is here of course, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli was probably my favourite amongst the the many churches I saw.  Just like the duomo in Florence the coloured marble cladding incredibly bright.

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Santa Maria dei Miracoli 1481-89, Pietro Lombardo

I have to say that I found Saint Mark’s Basilica (Venice’s most famous church, next to the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco) to be absolutely hideous.  Again, this is another example of how words and photographs are a poor substitute for reality because I had always assumed that Saint Mark’s was probably rather beautiful.  Perhaps its individual elements are, I guess, but together it’s a bit of a nightmare.  It’s a patchwork vomit of numerous architectural styles which have been piled on over the years in an uncountable number of alterations and additions.  Mark Twain aptly described it as, “a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk”.  Saint Mark’s is like an embodiment of Venice’s achievements in the wider world, an architectural trophy cabinet of precious objects and materials traded, pillaged and plundered from abroad.  The Doge’s Palace which sits right next to the Basilica looks charmingly ordered and beautifully articulate in comparison.  What can be seen in so many Venetian buildings though is evidence of Venetian wealth and prosperity as one or the trading gateways to the east.  You can see the byzantine/ottoman influence at work in both of the buildings below.

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Choas vs. Order, architectural trade off in Piazza San Marco

Wandering away from the crowds down the labyrinthine backstreets away from Piazzo San Marco brings you to an altogether different Venice.  The streets are narrow and buildings are crooked, leaning drunkenly into each other or over the narrow waterways.  In these crumbling backstreets it is easy to imagine the Venice of different era, a medieval town wracked by plague*, the prosperous merchant town of Marco Polo, the playground of Casanova.

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Centuries unchanged, history is found in every crevice in Venice (note the beautiful colours, Venice might be sinking but it’s colour palate is very much alive).

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The Bridge of Sighs, which links the Doge’s Palace with the prison in which Casanova was incarcerated.

Our trip ended rather unfortunately with a bout of mutual food poisoning (can’t win em all, and ironically this wasn’t the fault of the famous Venetian seafood), but Venice will stay in our hearts I’m sure.  If you haven’t been then I’d definitely bump it up the list, but personally I think it will a quite while before Venice succumbs to an inevitable watery grave.

*A quick endnote on the plague in Venice.  If you have a morbid imagination like me then you would probably be interested in this article about Poveglia, an abandoned and supposedly haunted island near Venice.  Poveglia was used to quarantine incoming merchants as well as plague victims, and later housed a mental hospital in the twentieth century.  Rumour has it that you won’t find a boat that will take you out there as the island is considered unsafe for visitors.

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Florence, Finally, part III

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A view to the Renaissance: Florence as seen from Palazzo Michelangelo at sunset

So after not having the best start to my week in Florence I did eventually get to see the mind blowing art and architecture that I was there for.  My one real regret for the week was that I hadn’t had the money to be able to visit this city sooner when I was a History of Art and Architecture student; I definitely would have had a renewed vigour for my studies!  I was astounded by just how many buildings that I had studied that were gathered together in such a small space, from the Uffizi to Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Riccadi, Palazzo Pitti, Santa Croce and countless others.  I was in architectural bliss.

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Duomo dreaming, first sight of the cathedral

For me the absolute stand out architectural piece was the obvious one; the duomo.  When I first saw this building, making slow progress towards it down a narrow Florentine street, I was totally unprepared by what I was about to encounter.  I spent an entire year studying Renaissance (re:90%Florentine) architecture, but obviously no amount of reading, lectures or tutorials managed to convey the majesty of this building.  I just could.not.believe.it.  The marble cladding is just so bright and beautiful, it’s incredible.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a building, or at least not in my recent travels.  I reckon it’s probably a contender for the most beautiful building I have ever seen.

In my head I was comparing it to Notre Dame in Paris because Notre Dame (1160-1345 w/later alterations) is also a city centre cathedral, but of a very different type.  Every time I see Notre Dame I think about how it must have looked to medieval peasants when it was first constructed.  It is a magnificent building now, but a person alive back then it must have looked like something that came from heaven; truly a house of God.  I think if I had been alive back then I would have gone to church just to bask in the architectural glory alone, and in Florence this idea is still very tempting in 2013.

Florence’s Cathedral, colloquially ‘the duomo’ and formerly referred to as ‘Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore’ was begun in 1296 and completed in 1346, although the green, white and pink marble facade that amazed me was a later 19th century addition.  Notre Dame always seems so dark and spindle-y to me, like a great black spider on the banks of the Seine while the duomo in contrast seemed incredibly bright.  The austere interior was a pleasant relief to the ‘busy’ facade and it was nice to be able to concentrate on the solid lines of the construction.  Absolutely astounding.  I’m a little bit sad that I never picked up this kind of enthusiasm for the building while I was actually studying it, I guess seeing something in real life is worth more than a thousand words, or even a picture.  Better late than never I suppose.  And here are some (totally inadequate) pictures:

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Appetite for beautiful architecture sated but not quite satisfied, my next stop was Venice which I’ll be writing about in my next travel post 🙂

Accommodation follies and some fine architecture: Florence part II

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15th century Villa Camerata in Fiesole: an unlikely hostel

I sure was in a sticky situation when I woke up on my first morning in Florence.  Events from the night before having impeded me from booking a hostel for the next night, and my morning scouring of the internet having been unsuccessful, I hauled my tired and panic-y self and implausibly heavy little suitcase off to the tourist information office.

Florence was not forgiving on that first morning.  I hadn’t been prepared for the narrow streets, and it was with some dismay that I noted the sheer amount other people dragging around suitcases on that Saturday morning.  It seemed as if hostelworld.com hadn’t been lying to me after all, and the city really was full to capacity.  Not wanting to stay too far out of the city, or in another criminally bad hostel I was even psyching myself up that this may in fact be the time for a hotel room.  Ouch!

On arriving at the tourist information office the man behind the reservation desk eyed my luggage sadly, apologised, and confirmed that the city was indeed booked out due to an international conference.  When I asked about hotels he regrettably informed me that the cheapest he had was €130 a night, and that, even in his personal opinion, was too much.  For me it wasn’t just too much but just totally out of the question.  I was swimming in panic and cold sweat at this point as I crossed the road to the train station to think.  It was at this time that I started musing on how nice it be to not have to solve this problem ALONE.  Travelling alone might have a plethora benefits, but two heads are always better than one in a crisis.

I considered getting a train to another town close by (Pisa is not too far) but realised of course I would be in the same situation there – nothing booked.  Or, I could give in to my fears and book one of those forgotten-or-undesireable-even-on-the-busiest-weekend-EVER hostels I had been avoiding.  I ducked into a cafe with wifi (luggage in tow) and made my peace with this decision.  The clock was ticking and it was mid afternoon by this point, the ONLY priority for the day was to have somewhere to sleep.  It was with tearful reluctance that I got a taxi to hostel 5km out of town.

I was dismayed beyond belief when the taxi turned off onto a endless potholed drive that led up to the hostel, past campsite and vineyards.  I felt liked I had been deposited in the middle of nowhere, and all my defences had well and truly been worn down to the point where I couldn’t even appreciate the beautiful entrance hall (shown above).  I feel quite sheepish admitting to this now, especially considering my warm and tender feelings towards this place by the end, but after I’d checked in and gone to my room I cried for the first and only time during my independent travels.  Aw.  I briefly convinced myself that I would leave Florence on the first train I could get the next day, and draw a line under the whole nightmare.  But luckily, food, a shower, a nap, some new friends and quite a lot of wine are great revivers of weary travellers spirit and in just a few short hours I decided that I would stick around after all and absorb all Florence had to offer.

After initial scepticism about its distance from the city centre I fell completely in love with Villa Camerata and ended up staying almost a week before finally switching another hostel in the centre so I could enjoy some city nightlife.  For a girl who likes her architecture this was an absolute delight to come home to every night:

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I couldn’t help myself from doing some research on the building (it’s prime dissertation material, if you want my opinion – I’ll be waiting – History of Architecture students) , but I wasn’t able to turn up that much.  Apparently the villa was a meeting place for the Accademia degli Svogliati, a 17th century association of writers in Florence.  I couldn’t have thought of a better base for my stay in the city.  Aside from the stunning marble in the entrance hall, the peaceful veranda with occasional sketching artist, the nearby vineyards, the manicured gardens, what I will remember most about this hostel will probably be the people.  I met some wonderful people here, and I really was very sad leave in the end.  I think this is a tribute to an unconventional choice gone right (as opposed to wrong, which has also happened a multitude of times).  Villa Camerata would not have been my first choice, but it will be next time.

Would you like to stay at Villa Camerata?  Summer months are highly recommended so you can drink wine and draw on the veranda.  Bring insect repellent.  I can assure you 100% that I am not being paid for such shameless advertising (more’s the pity) but you can book here.

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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!

In fair Verona where we lay our scene

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Stellar photo from me on this occasion (apologies!) Piazza Bra in Verona and the Roman arena

After a long trip down from Salzburg through the breathtaking Brenner Pass I arrived in Verona tired, grumpy, and all for catching an early night in my guesthouse (last minute hostels in Verona not forthcoming, it seems) but instead I decided to head out into the night – and I’m glad I did.

Resisting the temptation to enjoy having a room to myself for the night, not to mention the desire to completely empty and repack my case without worrying about annoying dorm mates – I stumbled out into the drizzle to discover Verona by night.  This was my very first visit to Italy so I had two clear agendas for the evening.  1. Pizza  2. Gelato, both of which I highly expected to be THE BEST PIZZA AND ICE CREAM OF MY LIFE (I wasn’t disappointed).  Verona was noticeably warmer than the previous places I had visited so I was already in a good mood, despite the persistent rain, as it felt like I had happily stumbled back into late summer temperatures . . . by British standards.

Slowly threading my way through increasingly busy streets I finally came to a large square lined with bustling restaurants and cafes, customers calmly sipping wine at a mass of outdoor tables under awnings.  In the centre of the square rose Verona’s magnificent arena.  This is a spectacular structure to behold at any time.  It dates from around 30 AD and is the crown jewel of the towns multitude of Roman ruins.  I have never been to Rome so this was my first encounter with an arena of this kind, and it was not merely the structure on this evening but roars of massive crowd from within which gave me goosebumps.  It turns out this almost 2000 year old structure is still used as a venue for music concerts and is still capable of housing 15,000 people.

The atmosphere in the square that evening was electric as crowds queued up outside for a rock concert.  For me, as a hapless tourist who had wondered in on this by accident, each roar from the crowd or sound system was a thrill.  I think I definitely began to get a better understanding of what these arenas must have been like in their Roman heyday, the buzz and palpable excitement around them, and the focal point they provided for a town.

The next day I paid €6 to gain entry to the arena and I felt like I was walking into a natural structure.  The walls were so solid and immovable that it was difficult to remember that this was something that had been built, rather than something which had been carved out of solid rock.  I was left with a sense of awe that the Romans had been able to construct something as mammoth and everlasting as this, and I was in even greater awe that it could still be used more or less for its original purpose almost 2000 years later.  Incredible.

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.

The Vines in Vienna

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Getting to Vienna was a rather calamitous affair, both emotionally and physically – so it’s hardly surprising that I was in search of a glass of wine when I arrived.  I do like the vino, and I was fairly surprised to find the good stuff in Austria of all places; Vienna not ranking on my list of wine producing hotspots.  Ah, but how wrong I was.

Part I – Rail travel is not romantic

Still second guessing my decision to leave Berlin, it was with a heavy heart that I boarded a twelve hour overnight train from the monumentally labyrinthine Hauptbahnhof.  Having established that I was not accidentally on a train to St.Petersburg or Paris I began to consider my surroundings.  Now, I had never been on an overnight train before, so my expectations were fairly limited.  I’m just going to say that whatever Orient Express romantic notions of long haul rail travel I had when I booked the train ticket, I’ve certainly lost them all now.  The compartment was small, dated, cramped and on leaving Berlin housed only me and my modest amount of luggage (despite being alone there still didn’t quite seem to be adequate room for my case either under the seats or in a luggage rack outside – as there didn’t seem to be one).  At the next stop a few more people got on, then a few more, then it was time to make up the beds.

By ‘beds’ I mean triple bunks made from folding the seats, which are then made up with sheets with holes repaired by iron on patches and supplemented with thick, scratchy brown blankets.  It was fairly early and I wasn’t ready to sleep yet, but I was pretty hungry.  Having heard mythical things about train dining cars I went off to check it out.  But.  Oh no.  The train didn’t have a dining car, which was bad news for me because I had no picnic (unlike my experienced train traveller compartment companions) and I was starving, in the sort of way that was definitely going to disturb what already promised to be a bad nights sleep.  ‘Luckily’ it did have a small shop tended by a creepy man which sold crisps and beer with prices listed in three currencies.  I sipped my beer in the corridor while walking past the first class bunks – which looked a lot more like what I had been expecting, and also a lot more like something that belonged to the 21st century, and made my way back to refugee class.  I climbed over the by now ridiculous amount of luggage in the compartment and crawled into my coffin sized bunk.  After fits and starts and being woken up by newcomers in Prague and the air conditioning freezing my toes off I finally arrived in Vienna in the dark at 6am, cold, tired and hungry.

Part II – Prater and the Palaces

I arrived at the Prater amusement park in Vienna’s Leopolstadt on a glorious autumn morning.  First stop was a meander into ‘Wiesn-fest’, the Prater’s own mini version of Oktoberfest.  I had made a conscious decision not to head to Oktoberfest in Munich but I was delighted with this charming scaled down version, even if it was a bit sleepy so early in the morning.

Following that I made my way immediately to the ‘Wiener Riesenrad’ – the Prater’s famous ferris wheel, which I know best from the film ‘Before Sunrise’ although it is also featured in the 1949 film noir ‘The Third Man’ (which I later saw in a tiny cinema next to the Hofburg).

Next on the list was Vienna’s myriad collection of palaces.

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The Upper Belvedere

The Belvedere is now a gallery which contains works by Austrian artists most notably including Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.  The main draw here for tourists – apart from the beautiful house and grounds- is the blockbuster painting ‘The Kiss’ by Klimt, in front of which you will find a predictable crowd of zombies taking photos with their ipads before moving on to the next room without taking a proper look at the painting.

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Picture postcard weather at the Schönbrunn

Former summer residence of the Hapsburg family, Wikipedia informs me that in 2010 the Schönbrunn saw over two and a half million visitors in that year alone.  And I can say that I don’t doubt that one bit, because I was absolutely staggered by the amount of people there in what I considered to be an out of season time.  But, well, these guys are onto something because the palace and grounds are astonishingly beautiful, a stunning example of Baroque design.  In a guilty comparison to Versailles (I end up comparing all palaces and grand houses I see to Versailles) I’m still struggling to work out which palace I like best, but I think Schönbrunn is definitely one I would like to revisit.

Trivia tidbit:  A six year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played here for the Empress Maria Theresa in 1772 in the ‘hall of mirrors’, which is open to the public.

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Hapsburg Hofburg: quintessential Vienna

This wasn’t my first brush with a Hofburg, I visited the Hofburg Imeperial Court in Innsbruck last year, which you can read about here.  I have to say that although this view of the Hofburg from Michaelerplatz is looking fairly flash, the view from the other side (which I encountered first) is looking decidedly more shabby.  I found the Hofburg to be fairly confusing as it is more a complex of separate entities such as the national library, the Sisi museum and the Spanish riding school rather than a single unit.  One thing for certain is that the Hofburg is vast, so you might need a spare week or so to start wading through the untold Hapsburg treasures within if you want to do them justice (and I mean this literally as the Imperial treasury is located here).

Part III – So tell me about the wine already!

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Vines and vin at this Heuriger

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Sound advice for eating and drinking in Grinzing

Grinzing is a picturesque little town north west of Vienna, that would be worth a visit for its photogenic qualities alone before you even get to its ‘Heurigen’ or wine taverns.  Just a short stumble from the vineyards which are attached to each individual Heurigen, this is a perfect late afternoon or evening drinking spot (a little research suggests that music is to be found here too, but I was there a bit early in the day for that).  While enjoying a delicious glass Blauer Zweigelt I decided that this was the optimum time to sample the famous Wiener schnitzel; a thin slice of breaded veal – Austria’s national dish.  The verdict is still out on the schnitzel as one has a tendency to steer away from breaded and deep fried food stuffs, but it was a perfect meal for the moment and I left Grinzing happy and content (if slightly drunk after several more glasses of wine).

Part IV – A hangover and a conclusion

Vienna was a sunburst of activity where I packed my days to the brim, and after 5 nights there I knew that I could easily have filled another week if the road was not beckoning me onwards.  There are a multitude of other things I did that haven’t been mentioned here including Sacher Torte, a trip to the Wachau Valley, €3 standing tickets to the opera etc. etc.  Vienna is a town that suits me apparently, and certainly one that I recommend.

Kicks in Copenhagen

The main dilemma of the past month or so has been that I have not been sure if I want to stay in Berlin or head off on further travels.  It feels odd to reduce this sentiment to a single sentence, as this decision has been taking up a lot of space in my head – and has lead to a lot of unease, soul searching, general unhappiness . . . as my savings are of course finite I either need to sort things and commit OR.  The mythical plan B.  Which involves not going home, but probably another train or plane, and a job somewhere else.  Either way – decision time has been slowly taking chunks out of me on a daily basis with the pendulum swinging according to my mood.  Berlin has lost a little of the glitter it had last year, I guess things are never the same the second time around – and from the start it was missing that inherent new-city weirdness you get when you first arrive somewhere you have never been before.  I wish that I’d had the money to be able to stick around last year when the enthusiasm was rolling.  But its charms are nevertheless inescapable, and the thought of leaving the people I have met and abandoning the idea of living in Berlin make me feel queasy.  I’m pretty much terrified either way.

On Wednesday night I went for drinks with my friend in Friedrichshain and thought that I’d pretty much cracked it.  Walking over Warschauer Strasse bridge at sunset gets me every time, and it’s tempting to stick around just based on that alone.  At the right time and in the right light that is my undisputed favourite view of the city.  It was a quiet and happy night, I thought for better for worse I would stay – I would finally abandon travel plans for the time being and throw everything I had at Berlin.

Then I woke up on Thursday morning and decided, actually, I still wasn’t sure.  I had been toying with the idea of going on a trip for a few weeks either to get it out of my system, or as a push to encourage me to maybe keep travelling.  Something inside my head finally snapped and I booked flights on impulse – for that day.  I have never done this before and I’m still fairly certain that it errs on the side of crazy.  But anyway.  I studied trains and planes out of Berlin to find cheap deals on interesting places.  Vienna was top of my hitlist, but it turned out that the single train journey to Vienna cost the same price as return flights to Copenhagen.

First piece of Copenhagen travel advice would be this:  Cheap flights you say?  Really, really cheap flights!?  Copenhagen is the third most expensive city in Europe apparently, so you might win on transport but you lose on EVERYTHING else.  I ended up paying the most I have ever paid for a bed in a hostel.  Although there were plenty of young people staying there, there was also a fair amount of families and a more than usual proportion of post-hostel age real adults.  I should point out it was a trendy type hostel close to a lot of bars, which was definitely aimed at a younger crowd – so I’m going to put the mixed clientele down to the extortionate Copenhagen accommodation rates.  I have paid the same amount for a double room in a nice guesthouse before . . . ouch.

The last minute nature of this trip meant that I had no plans at all, and virtually no idea of what interesting things there were to see and do in Copenhagen.  In some ways the point of the trip was to clear my head rather than tick things off a list, so it was ok.  It’s also nice to be surprised:

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Nyhavn: culinary heaven – just don’t look at the price

Nyhavn was beautifully photogenic with it’s lines of little restaurants and moored boats.  I imagine this place is probably at it’s atmospheric best on a misty night, sipping whisky and listening to live music.  Seems like it would be  good for a sea shanty or two.  Also the painted buildings remind me surprisingly of the buildings along the river in Innsbruck (the header photo of this blog) although everything was totally different of course.

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Church of Our Saviour

I spotted the corkscrew spire of this church in the Christianshavn area and needed to get a closer look.  On approach I realised that there was a staircase around the spire, and it was open to the public to climb.  Now, I am not scared of heights.  I have scaled the Eiffel Tower, lingered on the outdoor terrace of Heron Tower in London, been up the Empire State building; but OH GOD was the Church of Our Saviour experience terrifying.  The steep, old wooden stairs on the way up should have been a good clue, but one I got outside the terrace was very exposed with the gold railings suddenly looking very unsubstantial.  The floor was wooden and also ever so slightly pitched, I snapped some quick photos of the view and decided there was no way I was climbing to the top – my legs were already jelly.

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Lillehavn Frau: The Little Mermaid

As far as hollow tourist experiences go, the little mermaid statue is at the top of the list for Copenhagen.  I wandered out to the docks out of a sense of duty, took photos with the rest of the hoards and left feeling slightly cheated and bemused.  I have no idea why this statue is such a Big Deal, it seems like everyone has just got caught up in the Copenhagen top 10 hype.  However, I will credit this statue with getting me out of the city centre to an area I might not otherwise have visited.  A cruise ship had docked in the port which was a curiosity for me, and I later took a ‘shortcut’ through the Kastellet citadel/star shaped fortress near by.

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Inside the citadel, defensive . . . windmill?

The next day I went to the Tivoli Gardens, a cute little amusement park in the city.  The place was filled with candyfloss scoffing kids and their grandparents, and although the chilly weather eventually prompted me (jacket-less idiot) to leave I still had a fun time.  The Tivoli gardens reminded me a little bit of a British seaside town with its ferris wheel and large show pavilions, it dates from 1843 and I have a suspicion that my grandmother would have enjoyed the gardens and atmosphere here more than I did – but it was charming nonetheless.

In the evening I hit the town to see what Copenhagen had to offer.  I had opted for quite drinks at the hostel and avoided going out for the few first evenings just out of sheer ennui.  Berlin nightlife has really been taking it out of me, so partying wasn’t exactly top of the agenda, plus oh-my-god-the-cost-of-everything!  But of course I couldn’t leave without checking out a bar or two, and my hostel companion and I discovered a few good ones.

Charlie’s Bar:

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Predictably bad quality night shots from my camera, but maybe it’s appropriate because things were getting blurred in my head by the time we rolled out of here.

We met some British expats extolling the virtues of living in Denmark in Charlie’s.  I discovered to my absolute shock that this place sold stout brewed by Porterhouse (a small group of bars and a microwbrewery) in Dublin – one of my favourite old haunts from university times.  On a tip off from the expats we then headed to a place called The Moose:

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I’m just going to assume something got lost in translation

The Moose was full of moose porn murals like this one.  I have absolutely no idea what was going on here, but I know this bar was awesome!  We met some more expats: a guy from Dublin and a girl who had lived in Berlin for a year, and we hung out with those guys all night.  This was a bit weird for me because it was my past and my present meeting – it was odd to talk to them both about beloved Dublin/Berlin places of mine – and life and local idiosyncrasies in those cities.  It makes me sad in retrospect, without really being able to say why.  I think maybe I’m homesick for the nostaligic idea I have of these places when I know the reality can be harsh.

Thus ends my Copenhagen adventure.  I actually ended up going on a brief trip road trip across to Malmo in Sweden, which is just across the water – but it was a bit dull, so I’ll spare you the details on that one.

As for my decision on Berlin?  Unsurprisingly I’m still not sure, but obviously operating on a tight deadline here.  Urgh.

I recently came across a quote by travel writer Paul Theroux; ‘Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travellers don’t know where they’re going.’  Never has this seemed more relevant to my life than it does at the moment.

Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is Ok

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On the terrace by the lake the rain pours on a Saturday afternoon.  A cold glass of wine, condensation dripping down the outside.  Later when the rain stops we sit by the lake at sunset, mist rising off the water.  ‘It doesn’t have to be this way’.  You say.  But the city pulls us back on her tendrils, pulls us down into the vortex.  Parties that never end, wooden floors, echoes and ghosts.  Night bleeding into dawn already, but you have barely arrived.

Fleeting glances of yourself in the mirror, a reflection you hate so much.  A reflection you don’t recognise, pin prick pupils or a dark pool the covers your entire eyes.  Pale and shaky and cut adrift.  What happened?  What paths brought me here?

A reflection that you try to seduce.  When you look a certain way, when you smile, lower your eyes.  Change your hair.  Change your dress.  Try to find a combination that will make him want to fuck you.  That will make people like you.  That will make the city accept you.  But it’s all lost when you hate what you see.  Shake your head.  Shake your head.  Walk away.

At 4am on a U-bahn platform he tries to explain.  But we’ve heard it.  Before.  And –

Can’t take it now.

Tomorrow?

DROWN YOUR SORROWS

Berlin is not perfect, but a different form of not-perfect to the last thing.  Maybe a better form.  Maybe.  Nothing is ever quite perfect as our perceptions and expectations are in constant flux.  Always saving for tomorrow.  Accept the imperfect nature of things as they are.

But the swans and the willows by the canal on this perfect August afternoon.  Happiness is as fleeting as the image of it in your head.

Smoke that blows across the grass.

A goodbye party by candle-light.  Standing on the edge of the circle, skirting the fringes, the darkness at your back.  All the young, and talented, and beautiful, and drunk, and drugged, and lost.  And sad.  Sometimes.  Libations in the moonlight, but you’ve lost your tongue at dawn.

Warm sunlight non-judgemental

Walk alone by the canal

Turn the handle

High ceiling and wooden floor

Silence in the courtyard

Her sleeping back, bare and smooth

Another morning.

Another day.  Another night.

YESTERDAY WAS DRAMATIC – TODAY IS OK

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Peace in this empty Berlin altbau on an early autumn evening.  Low lights and houseplants, emails and wine.  Neukölln night progresses around you as the clock on the kitchen wall ticks.  Away.

Crying into coffee and scrambled eggs this morning.  ‘Write it out’, you said.  Draw out the poison.  Time melts when we are together.  Seconds and eternity hard to distinguish between.

Disclaimer:  This is raw from my notebook, so, yeah.

White Nights

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White night wonders (kudos to Lonely Planet)

There is always a danger when revisiting books you read a long time ago that they might not be as good as you remember.  This realisation can be such a terrible let down, you feel cheated that you carried around a certain idea of something for such a long time and then you wonder at your own lack of taste the first time around.  This feeling is exacerbated by the amount of time that has elapsed since you first read the book, one should exercise a certain caution then in re-reading something from childhood.  Of course sometimes that book is everything you remembered it to be, and it’s an absolute pleasure –

I read One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg by Duncan Fallowell a very long time ago.  It wasn’t quite a childhood read, if I had to estimate I would say I was about 12 – and undoubtably there was plenty in there that was not age appropriate.  Literature wise I got away with absolute murder when I was younger, the consequence of being surrounded by adults who don’t read is they they never check what you’re greedily getting stuck into.  Something about this book stuck with me though, the heady atmosphere of a foreign city in summer, a city undergoing massive upheaval, a city in all its moods, daydream, reality, insanity.

Years later I’m glad to say I found this book to be a marvellous rediscovery, whatever caught me the first time is still there in the same way that I remember.  I think now I’m a (sort of) adult what strikes me is that there is a lot in this book that is similar to the way I travel and experience places, or surrender to places, I can see myself reflected here which is why I like it so much.  When I was younger I couldn’t have known that, but must have picked up on the mood anyway.  I’m busy making my own plans to spend the summer in Berlin so I think re-reading One Hot Summer has been somewhat tantilising.  I can feel the essence of my old european summers in the pages; running through Prague in a thunder storm one night in July, forks of lightening illuminating the skyline.  Sunburn in Paris after a day at Versailles.  Endless nights in Berlin, drinking wine in the park, walking home at 9am.  And all the really awful stuff as well, when you want to cry for no reason, when you feel like a city is alluding you, when it all seems too intense, when you struggle to make a connection to it as a ‘real’ place.  I’ve found that almost inevitably wherever you are the best and worst part is always the people.  It’s almost time for summer on the continent again, but not quite, so reading this book was both satisfying and frustrating at the same time.  I just wanted to be in it, now.

‘Many times in life one may encounter someone who touches us with an adorable and perplexing charm, who cuts the ordinary day with a moment of magic, and almost at once the person has gone, been swept away, sucked back into the crowd.  When rarely, through force of circumstance or ingenuity or imagination or daring, one manages to arrest this transience, to jam the conveyor belt of passing events and say no, stop, yes, hullo, and retrieve that person from their fall into the pit of what might have been, and bring him or her forward into the real, the now, the light, your life, this is . . . important.  And it means still more in a place where one has little, nothing.  And this happened.  And as suddenly, it came to naught.  I thought this contact meant something.  Does anything mean anything here, or is it all fucking quicksand?  Is every gesture hollow?  How can a person be so full of it one day, and the next – nothing?  Is it possible to know someone in this town?’

– One Hot Summer in St.Petersburg

If you’re interested then here’s an interview with Duncan Fallowell: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/duncanfallowellinterviewed/