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Archive for April, 2012

Although we sent out more than a dozen requests, we never found a Couchsurfing host in Amsterdam. Searching for a hostel showed that staying there can be very expensive depending on the time of week you go: a hostel with beds for €15 on Wednesday typically increases to €30 on Thursday and €60 on Friday; we left on Saturday. Eventually I found a hotel with cheap twin rooms – €18.50 per person per night – on Hostelbookers.

The hotel – HEM Hotel Amsterdam – was somewhat outside the city centre and we had to take a fairly long tram ride – a fairly long, very crowded tram ride with our bags – to get there. The room was small and basic and hot; the door didn’t close flush to the doorframe and the window was difficult to open and close; it was at least private and, at the price, we couldn’t really complain.

On the first morning – having had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar the night before, not drunk enough water and slept in a very hot bed – I had a terrible hangover and dry-retched several times. Habiba looked after me and then left me to sleep it off and went to explore the city.

Later, we went out together and walked through the Red Light district in the light rain. It was pretty interesting (you can decide for yourself whether I mean that as a euphemism) to see the women in their little window booths. Many of them did sexy dances and poses; others just stood there looking bored; others were on their phones; sometimes they’d knock on the window to attract your attention. They were all at least pretty good-looking – they could easily be models. Later, we browsed a sex shop; Habiba got annoyed when I said I was bored.

The next day, we determined to do some sightseeing, maybe take in a museum or two. I suggested that we walk through the Vondelpark; Habiba was against it. The tram we took broke down close by the park, so I won out in the end. And the park was very pleasant.

Aside from being very expensive, many of the museums had very long queues outside them, so we chickened out of going to a museum that day and resolved to get up earlier. We went to a pancake restaurant and had large, savoury pancakes for lunch; Habiba’s was very tasty – it had cheese and bacon; mine was fairly bland – mushrooms and bell peppers. I should have got a sweet one.

We did end up going to the Anne Frank House. (As Anne Frank was German, her name should actually be pronounced ‘Anna’.) This was a fascinating experience. There is a clearly defined course that you take through the building that housed Otto Frank’s business (which he sold to his non-Jewish employees) and through the secret rooms where the Franks and another family hid out. A neighbouring museum part holds Anne’s diaries and rewritten pages. There are stops along the way where everyone bunches up to watch a two or three minute video – many including testimonies from survivors such as Otto Frank – the only member of his family to survive.

We also bit the bullet and queued up for the Van Gogh Museum. We enjoyed trying to pronounce it authentically – not ‘van goff’ like the British or ‘van go’ like the Americans, but more like ‘fon khokh’. Habiba enjoyed listening to and talking about the Dutch accent with its up-and-down lilt and its frequent gutturals; she reckoned it sounded very friendly, which is not a bad description.

The museum held a good selection of Van Gogh’s art and the descriptions included for most pieces gave some good contextual information and analysis of technique. The Van Gogh section of the museum also contained occasional works by other artists for comparison. For instance, there was still life of a vase of flowers and a very similar painting by another artist – I forget who – as well as the actual vase that Van Gogh painted. Up stairs there was a selection of works in various styles from the same era. In another section that you entered from the basement, there was a large exhibition of Symbolist works – many of which were strikingly beautiful.

In the main square, Dam Square, a little fun fair was set up – practically while we watched. When complete, we went on the haunted house mini-rollercoaster. We also paid a visit to the Condomerie – a shop full of prophylactics both sensible and less so. We bought a couple of things. Nothing too silly – certainly no animal- or Big Ben- shaped rubber johnnies.

Besides sex, the other thing Amsterdam is well known for these days is marijuana. That kind of thing doesn’t interest me at all – inhaling the fumes of a narcotic plant doesn’t seem like a terribly intelligent idea. However, I agreed to try some cannabis confectionery. We went into a very smoky ‘coffee shop’ and Habiba bought a pot muffin for about €7. We ate it walking around; she ate most of it – I had about a quarter or a third of it. It didn’t seem to have any effect at first, but later Habiba reported that she was feeling high. I didn’t notice any effect on myself.

We looked at tulip bulbs in the Floating Market. At one point, we past a building that had a big inscription reading, ‘HOMO SAPIENS NON URINAT IN VENTUM’ – ‘A wise man does not piss in the wind’. We took photos of the triple-triangular Homo Monument and of the sex worker statue, Belle. We learnt that the coat of arms of the city contains a shield that bears three Xs arranged in a vertical row; this triple X can be found all over Amsterdam.

On our last full day in the city, we took a ferry from the Central Station just across the IJ (‘ij’ is a single letter, so it’s entirely in capitals – a ride of about two minutes, and a free one. There was a big ‘I amsterdam’ sign – less crowded than the one on Museumplein. We also saw a couple of Egyptian geese with a gaggle of shelducklings making their way through the water. Also nearby was the brand new EYE Film Institute building.

When we checked out, we found that the bill had already been charged to my credit card – which was fine, I suppose. Then we made the long tram journey back to Central Station and caught the next train to Brussels.

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The day after going to Sachsenhausen, we finally spent a day in Berlin itself, and our sightseeing – like the previous couple of days – had a WWII flavour.

We looked around a museum called Topography of Terror that was about the Gestapo and the SS during the Nazi regime. The place is a very modern building, free to enter and has displays laid out in a semi-random fashion. The exhibition has lots of photos accompanied by plenty of text. Reading the main texts gave a good overview of the history of the Gestapo and Schutzstaffel in that era, although I remained a little unclear as to what the SS actually was – police? army? Wikipedia defines it as the Nazi party’s paramilitary wing.

Outside the museum was a section of preserved Berlin Wall.

After some lunch at a Starbucks-ish café, we went to the Jewish Museum. The entrance to this museum is in an old building, but the permanent exhibition is in Daniel Liebeskind’s zigzag modern structure.

It’s not really a Second World War exhibition, although the events of the 20th century certainly contextualise your approach to it, but rather a history of Jews in Germany spanning a thousand years or more. The museum is massive and full of angular twists and turns and plenty of interactive exhibits.

When we left, went dropped by the giftshop and Habiba encouraged me to buy a pair of spherical dice (they function as d6s and have a ball-bearing in a specially shaped hollow inside). We also got some kosher jelly sweets.

Later that day, we bid adieu to Till and went across town to our next Couchsurfing host, Annie. When we arrived, there was no answer, but after waiting outside and ringing the intercom bell for several minutes, there was finally an answer and we were let in. Annie was a middle-aged woman with another great flat that she kindly shared with us.

On our last full day in Berlin, we went to Checkpoint Charlie – with its preserved sign reading ‘YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR’. We spent some time reading the information boards along the street that formed a kind of outdoors museum. Nearby, we also spotted a place that rented out Trabants and, next to it, ‘the world’s largest captive balloon’.

We walked to Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful square surrounded by the French and German Cathedrals and the Konzerthaus.

As we headed home, Habiba spotted a Ritter Sport shop. Ritter Sport is a German chocolate that Habiba bought a lot in Korea, as it’s one of the few good imports readily available. It comes in square bars of sixteen blocks and a variety of types. At the shop, Habiba was delighted to find that you could design your own bar. We chose a chocolate – dark or milk – and three fillings – I got one with yoghut flakes, banana flakes and bits of caramelised almonds. We also bought two kilogrammes of chocolate bars and chocolates for €13.50.

The following morning, we went back up to the central station, Hauptbahnhof, and took our next train – to Amsterdam.

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As we’ve been travelling, so my injured thumb and toe nails have been growing. This how they looked a few weeks ago in Dubrovnik:

The whitish part of my thumbnail is what I had originally thought to be exposed bone. It was under my previous nail and under the scab that developed when I injured it. However, it hardened and I suddenly realised one day that it was growing out, over the rough nail bed. That nail bed is now completely covered, but the nail has grown a little oddly – it bulges out quite a lot. Hopefully, in a few more months, successive nail growth will be more normal.

When I started our trip, I put plasters of ‘artificial skin’ or waterproof bandages on my toenail all the time – often leaving one bandage for a couple of days or so. Eventually, though, I decided that the toenail bed would be tough enough to stand a day’s walking inside a boot without protection. It’s been completely fine since then – better, in fact, as, when it was covered, the skin around my toenail got very soft and sticky from adhesive.

Here are the latest photos, taken in our hotel room in Amsterdam:

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On our first full day in Germany, and on Botond’s advice, we took the S-Bahn (the ‘S’ stands for ‘schnell’ – ‘fast’) train down about as far as it goes to the south-west of Berlin. It didn’t cost that much – a day ticket covering zones A, B and C cost €6.80.

When we got there it was raining a little and we took the bus (as Potsdam is in zone C, this was covered by our ticket) to Schloss Sanssouci – Sanssouci Palace. We queued up for a while outside this fairly small, though lovely pastel yellow edifice – our Lonely Planet book stated that they only allow 2,000 visitors a day into the UNESCO-protected building, so we’d tried to get there reasonably early. We decided that maybe the €12 or so entrance wasn’t going to be worth it; we were cold and our guide book told us the place to visit if time was limited was the New Palace at the other end of Sanssouci Park.

The park is a massive place that contains at least four palaces and various other notable buildings. We made our way down the Main Avenue to the grand edifice of the New Palace – only to find that it was closed for renovations – apparently 2012 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great, Friedrich II, so it’s being spruced up for the celebrations.

We had lunch on a cold, wet bench nearby and headed back up to the other end of the park, passing the gilded Chinese House, various statues – including some of black slave characters looking at masterful Roman figures – and an obelisk, took photos of mandarin ducks while Habiba threw rice snack to them, and went for a coffee in the historic town centre.

From there, we walked to the New Garden, a slightly more modest park, but still pretty huge and beautiful. It was especially beautiful, as the weather had cleared and the was a vibrant, afternoon blue, dotted with a few small clouds. The main sight to see here was Schloss Cecilienhof – Cecilienhof Palace – a fairly small, orange building built in Tudor style for a princess.

It is most famous for being the location of talks between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the end of the Second World War. We slowly toured the building with our audioguides to our ears, taking pictures when the attendants were out of sight. Not only did the three parties to the talks have separate rooms, but they had separate entrances to both the building and the conference – the old ballroom.

Walking back through the park, we stopped to look at a swan and some other waterfowl. The swan hissed at us and approached us threateningly. We kept our distance – still taking photos.

We’d told Till that we’d get back by six o’clock, but we were rather later than that – meaning Till’s suggestion of going to see some live music at a nearby bar had to be put off to the next day.

The next day, we again left Berlin and headed north to Oranienburg, site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. From the station, we could have taken a bus, but we chose to walk the couple of kilometres to it. We were confused partway, by roadsigns that went from something like 1.8 km to 2.4 km to 0.4 km.

When we got there, we hired audioguides for €3 each. I gave the man a twenty and he gave me twelve in change. I asked him how much they were supposed to be and he said, ‘€6, and I gave you €12. That’s bullshit.’ Then he gave me the right change. He also took my passport, as they needed to keep some ID for each person who takes a guide. Also bullshit.

Sachsenhausen is centred on a triangular camp area that is entered through a gate building – Tower A – in the middle of the southern edge. The open gate had the famous words ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ – ‘work liberates’ or ‘work makes you free’ – on them. The place had been a model for later concentration camps in the rest of Germany. Most of the buildings had been demolished by communist regime after the war and were represented by rectangular areas of broken rock.

The GDR – East Germany – had also erected a giant monument to political prisoners. This memorial had eighteen red triangles at the top: eighteen for the number of countries such victims came from, red triangles from the prison uniform symbol for political prisoners; the East Germans hadn’t thought it appropriate to remember any of the other kinds of prisoners – Jews, gays, Roma etc.

Two barracks – buildings housing the inmates – had been reconstructed from parts of old ones. Each barracks had a bunk room at each end, each containing numerous triple bunk beds. In between were social areas, washrooms and toilet rooms. The toilet rooms consisted of a row of urinals on one side and a row of toilets on the other, not separted by cubicles. There were signs relating how prisoners had just a few minutes each morning to try to wash themselves at the large basins; they included stories of prisoners who been murdered by guards there by hanging or drowning.

Another area, just to the side of the triangular camp – Station Z – was where prisoners were gassed and cremated. Right next to it was a trench were others were shot by firing squad. Station Z was housed in a shelter to protect it from the elements; it also contained a memorial sculpture, in front of which people had left tokens – flowers, candles, or even just stones. The path a prisoner took – entering the camp at Tower A and leaving it at Station Z – represented a kind of course of life from birth to death.

By the time we got round to this part, it was past the six o’clock closing time. We’d spent over two hours there, having arrived fairly late in the day and when we got back to the main office it was closed. With my passport still inside. Fortunately, it wasn’t completely closed – the security office was still open and we re-exchanged audioguides for identification.

We’d told Till again that we’d try to get back for six, but, again, it was much later than that when we arrived, so the live music idea was nixed once more. Instead, Till – who is an expert in Japanese comedy (literally – that was the subject of his recent PhD thesis) – let us watch his DVD of Tampopo, which, while not without its faults, is sweet and funny.

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We took the train from the main Prague station to Berlin at about 8:30 on Thursday morning. The Prague station has a section near the front that I remember from when I was there with my friend Lawrence eight years ago; however, much of it has been redeveloped – there’s lots of shiny red walls and new shops. We only passed through this time, though, having already got our Eurail pass and reservations.

The ride to Berlin – in first class – was fine. Once we arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof – the main station there – we had a few hours to kill until our host was available to receive us. The station is a vast structure, with platform down underground and platforms up at the top of the building, and it’s all open inside, so you can look down from the upper platforms and see the lower ones; in between there are lots of shops and cafés.

We set up camp at a Caffe Ritazza, drank their expensive coffee, ate the little food we’d brought with us; Habiba went and got a currywurst for us to share – a sausage with tomato ketchup and curry powder.

Later we took a train down to Südkreuz (which we’d already passed on the way in) and took the S-Bahn (the city rail system) to Innsbrückerplatz (having determined that our Eurail pass was good on the S-Bahn), where our host, Till, lives.

We were too early – about 45 minutes too early. Habiba wanted to sit on a wall and wait, but I went and found a café nearby and we ended up going there.

When we returned, Till let us in and showed us to his living room – which was to be our bedroom. His flat was reasonably spacious – not massive, but it had a bedroom and study as well as a kitchen and bathroom in addition to the living room.

Once we’d settled in somewhat, Till needed to do some work, so we went out for a couple of hours. We went up to the Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburg Tor, in German), took some obligatory photos, ditto with the nearby Reichstag, had a piece of cake at a café in the Tiergarten park.

Next, we walked to the Holocaust Memorial, which occupies pretty much a whole city block and consists of thousands of blank, concrete stelae of differing heights standing at varying angles on an undulating tiled surface. There were a few kids running around through and over the monoliths. While the place is dedicated to the memory of one of the most notorious periods in history, it also functions as something of a playground. Habiba and I joined in, stepping from block to block before they got too tall and scary, then chasing each other through the maze of columns.

Later, Till took us to a restaurant for some German cuisine – I had a dish with noodles, beans, a sausage and bacon as well as a dollop of mustard (which I mostly left for Habiba) and some delicious granules that Till told us were caramelised onion or something, although they tasted nothing like onion.

We were very glad to have found Till as a host. He was a gentle guy, smart and possessed of a dry and slightly whimsical sense of humour. He offered the use of his books while we were there and I took him up on this and read a graphic introduction to semiotics. Unfortunately, he had a cold while we were there and didn’t hang out with us during our three days with him; we did eat dinner with him every evening, though.

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On Tuesday, we had a couple of important goals to accomplish – get our laundry washed (I’d been wearing dirty underwear for a couple of days) and meet our new Couchsurfing hosts. The hostel didn’t have any laundry service, so they told us where to find a couple of laundrettes. We found one eventually – not in the exact location that had been marked on our map – and it cost us 250 crowns (£8.30) for our two largish loads.

For much of the rest of the day, we hung out at the hostel. We’d already checked out, but they had free luggage storage, free wifi and free coffee.

Later, we went to the Sex Machines Museum, which was full of various sex toys, boards with diagrams of sexual device patents, BDSM gear and historical (one assumes) sex-related machines like a pedal-operated contraption with a wooden dildo that was supposedly used by nuns to quench their ardour. There was also a mini-cinema showing two hardcore pornographic films from the 1920s, thought to have been made on the orders of the then king of Spain.

We had a look around the Josefov, the old Jewish quarter, then crossed the river and went up the hill to the metronome monument. Our hosts later told us that the prominence looking over the Vltava and the Old Town originally held a gigantic statue of Stalin, but that was torn down decades ago. While we were there, I took lots of photos, including a fair few of the sky, which looked beautiful.

In the evening, we picked up our bags from the hostel (stopping in the Old Town Square to again watch the hour strike on the Astronomical Clock) and took a tram north to meet our hosts. Tereza and Dan turned out to be a very sweet couple. We met them at a cinema café, Bio Oko, where, if I remember rightly, they’d met while working together.

We had a beer and chatted and then they put us on another tram going further up the hill while they rode their bicycles. We met again at their local tram stop and went to their flat. It wasn’t a big place, but it was very nice; they slept in a loft up above the kitchen, while we had the fold-out sofa. We spent some time showing them my collection of coins and banknotes from this and previous trips. I gave them a 1,000 Korean won note and a twenty pence piece; Tereza gave us a couple of low value Polish coins.

Tereza had work and Dan had university the following day, so they couldn’t hang out with us that much. Habiba and I spent the morning and afternoon at their place, then we walked through the large and lovely nearby Stromovka Park, down to the river and back over to Josefov. We got tickets for the Old Jewish Cemetery for 300 crowns (about £10), which then gave us access to a number of other synagogues and Jewish Museums in the area.

The Jewish Cemetery was crowded full of gravestones arranged in rows, but all leaning at random angles. The interior walls of the Pinkas Synagogue on the same site were painted with the names, birth and death dates of tens of thousands of holocaust victims. The Spanish Synagogue was beautiful inside, the dark walls covered with baroque gold designs. All of these places forbade photography inside, but we mostly didn’t let that stop us sneaking a number of shots – there were no attendants.

We met Dan again, along with a friend of his, and we had a beer and a bowl of soup at a very long restaurant called Lokál. Later in the evening, we did some shopping and made a meal back at our hosts’ home – salad and a stirfry of cougette, leek and sausage.

I wasn’t feeling too well after dinner – due to a day-ling headache, I think – so I was glad when we got to go to bed. Tereza and Dan said they’d get up about the same time as us, but in the event, they only got us just before we left. So we said our goodbyes with us in our warm clothes and boots, them in their dressing gowns, and we took the tram down to the main railway station, where we took our train for Berlin.

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Once we arrived at the main railway station in Prague, after a four or so hour leg from Linz in Austria, we got some Czech crowns from a cash machine and walked to our hostel, the Old Prague Hostel, very near the Old Town. Because they didn’t have many beds available, we had to move to another dorm on our second day. Then we had to check out, get our laundry cleaned and meet our Couchsurfing hosts for our last two nights in the city. We haven’t actually done that last part, yet.

As it was Easter, there are lots of stalls in wooden huts set up in the Old Town Square, Staroměstské nám, selling beer, mead, ham, sausages, bread and so on. It was decorated with fake trees and ribbons and colourful eggs hanging from the real trees. When we arrived there on our first night, the sky was partly cloudy in a very picturesque way – the clouds were limned with peach sunset light. While there, we saw the medieval Astronomical Clock turn eight o’clock; a skeleton rang a bell while a parade of clockwork figures peered out of a pair of windows.

We ate sausages in buns and crisps that were made on the spot – a machine sliced potatoes into curly ribbons and they were deep fried in big, steaming friers. The crisps were tasty but extremely greasy. Afterwards we walked to Charles Bridge, had dinner nearby then headed back to the hostel.

The next day, Sunday, we again had food at Staroměstské nám – some surprisingly pricy mushy potato and sausage and dumpling stuff, and some sweet bread made in spirals on metal axles, trdelník.

We looked around the Salvador Dalí and Alfons Mucha (a Czech Art Nouveau artist) exhibits at a nearby gallery.

Then we walked over to Prague Castle, on the other side of the Vltava river, passing by the Franz Kafka statue by the Spanish Synagogue and stopping at the Senate gardens on the way – where we saw a couple of peafowl, one cock and one hen.

At the castle, we went into St Vitus’s Cathedral and looked at the coloured light from the stained glass windows painting the rainbows on the masonry.

On the way back – after going to a café inside the castle for a tea and a coffee in order to use the bathroom only to find that the café had no bathroom and Habiba had to pay 10 crowns (about 33p) for the nearby WC (when she’d gone there earlier, they had refused to give her change for her 20 crown coin) – we stopped at an absinthe café. It took us a long time to decide what to order, to the evident boredom of the waiter, who gave merely functional answers to our questions, but eventually we shared some absinthe ice cream (they also had cannabis ice cream) and a relatively expensive glass of the drink – which turned out to be very mild and quite drinkable.

We walked back to the Old Town across Charles Bridge and stopped at the shopping arcade at the far end to visit the Museum of Medieval Torture (for pretty exorbitant 250 Kč (£8.31)). This contained three floors (each with three smallish rooms) of torture instruments – stocks, various kinds of shackles, a rack, an impaling spike, the ‘Virgin of Nuremberg‘ – which latter is an iron maiden based on a hoax, apparently, although the text in the museum didn’t mention that.

For dinner, we had chicken burritos.

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Our train trip from Vienna to Salzburg didn’t go as well as we had expected, but it wasn’t a disaster. When we got to Wien Westbahnhof, we looked for the first train to Salzburg and went and got on it. It was a double-decker with attendants waiting at all the doors. We found second class and settled in. We soon discovered that the train even had wifi; Botond, who we had said goodbye to only a few days before, sent me a message via Skype to ask how things were going. Then a ticket inspector came along and told us we couldn’t use our Eurail pass on this privately operated train – only on the national service ÖBB (which is pronounced something like urgh-beh-beh).

The inspector was very friendly and understanding and advised us to either buy a ticket for the whole journey or just buy one for Vienna to the next station, where we could change to an ÖBB train. We opted for the latter.

Once in Salzburg, it turned out to be a short walk to where we were staying. We were Couchsurfing again, but staying in the workshop of an artist – who would not be around at all to see us. We got the keys from their hiding place in a plastic bag on the back of a bicycle and let ourselves in. The atelier was one of a small handful on the first floor (that’s a real, European first floor – woohoo!) and was located above a driving school and next to a Korean evangelical church.

The room was quite large and had a large desk, a stereo with a collection of records, tapes and CDs, a large shelving unit, a sofa and rickety table, a fridge, kettle and a little electric stove. It was not greatly clean, it was insufficiently floored with carpet tiles and was inhabited by a small number of ants. Outside the room was a corridor with doors to other workshops on one side, a door to the stairs and lift as well as shelves covered up with curtains of cloth on the other side, and, at the far end, a small kitchen and a toilet.

There was no bathroom as such, so the host had recommended that we go to a nearby hotel for showers. However, we got by for the four days we were there on full body washes in the kitchen, which had a lockable door (unlike the washroom part of the toilet). We didn’t actually need to lock the door, though, or even shut it, as we didn’t see anyone at all there the whole time we were there (until the last evening – on the subject of which, more later).

Indeed, it was even a little eerie. We did lots of walking up and down the atelier corridor – we ate there a lot and needed to go to the kitchen to wash up, as well as the normal run of bathroom trips. The corridor had lights that operated on a timer – and there was no switch next to the bathroom or kitchen, so we’d often walk the length of the corridor in near complete darkness with only the light from our open door to guide us. The cloths draped over the shelves fluttered as we passed by.

On our first day in the city, the weather was pretty good – that was the day I decided to leave my camera at the atelier. The next morning was also nice, but the rest of the time it was overcast and it rained on and off, although with increasing duration and heaviness as the days went by. When we woke up on the final morning, it was snowing.

Salzburg (which translates as ‘Salt Town’) is divided into two parts by the Salzach (‘Salt River’). To the north – where we stayed – is the railway station and much of the residential area, as well as some prettier parts, such as Mirabell Palace, near the river; to the south is the fortress atop its small mountain, Festung Hohensalzburg, and, below it, the old city, Altstadt, with the Cathedral (which looks, from the outside, like it’s constructed from breezeblocks; there’s also a nearby sculpture consisting of a man figure standing on top of a giant golden ball) and numerous other churches and beautiful buildings.

On our second day, we went on a city tour. The company’s buses are bright yellow and have Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music on them. They do a range of tours, including an actual Sound of Music one, but we did the basic €15 tour. This took us around the city and to a couple of places just outside. The commentary – accessed by plugging in headphones – was in various languages and had a Mozart soundtrack or a Sound of Music one. The music cut out in strange ways, with, just before the commentary started, a second of a different piece.

At Leopoldskron Palace, we walked up and down the side of a small lake that reminded me a lot of a lake in Runcorn near Norton Priory. Except for the palace. It started raining, though, which was also reminiscent of Britain. The next stop was Hellbrunn Palace, which had another Sound of Music shooting location. It’s also home to some famous ‘Trick Fountains’ – which we didn’t pay to see, but we watched part of a free documentary about them – they’re all based on classical mythology and incorporate ingenious 17th and 18th century technology. It was also raining pretty steadily when we were there.

On another occasion, we walked up Kapuzinerberg to the yellow Capuchin Monastery, then past the Mozart monument there and around the woods to a couple of lookout points and a small schoss.

In the Altstadt, we visited catacombs in the side of the mountain below the fortress. They were by a couple of churches and, in between, a picturesque cemetery, full of graves that were little flower beds.

We also walked up to the fortress, Festung Hohensalzburg and had a look at the little puppet museum and the more extensive fortress museum.

And, as Salzburg is the city of his birth, we went to a couple of Mozart museums (on a combined ticket), the Geburtshaus (Birth House) and the Wohnhaus (Residence). The latter had free audio guides and everyone inside was hanging around listening and waiting to move on to the next item.

Salzburg is a beautiful place. The old city is crammed full of churches and is lorded over by the fortress on hill right behind it. Perhaps the most distinctive building, though, was a power plant, the Heinzkraftwerk Mitte.

On our last evening in the city we decided to take out the rubbish and recycling – which had built up long before we arrived. We dumped some paper and plastic, but we couldn’t find anywhere to put glass and trash, so we took those back inside. However, just as we were going back in, an old woman who had come out while we were across the road investigating the neighbour’s bins started talking to us. She followed us up to the workshops and wanted to communicate something to us that involved the number nine and locking up. Once she thought we understood she went away and everything seemed OK. Habiba went downstairs and found that the door was locked.

When we left in the morning, after nine o’clock, we found the door no longer locked. The gate to the car park, was another matter, though. I climbed over the wall by the gate, replaced the keys on the back of the bike and climbed back – then realised we hadn’t actually tried to open the gate.

We walked to the nearby station and caught a train to Linz, where we changed to another for Prague – which is where we are now, and my blogging has nearly caught up to the present.

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Vienna

At the railway station in Budapest, I made sure to get a 5 and a 50 forint coin to fill out my collection of Hungarian coins (which had been depleted when I first showed some to Habiba and she decided to keep half of them).

Once in Vienna, we went to the ticket office and reserved a seats for most of our journeys for the next month. This cost us about €170 – mostly for first class seats, as per our Eurail passes. This brings the total cost of our rail travel (not including Zagreb to Bratislava) to about €600 each – which has bought us 10 days of travel in a two-month period. Most of our trips will be international, except that we’ve now decided not to go to Spain after France, but straight to Italy and there visit Venice, Rome and Naples.

We took the underground from Wien Westbahnhof to Landstrasse and walked to the City Airport Train check-in area, where our Couchsurfing host had asked us to meet her. The Austrian Airlines check-in staff didn’t know what we were on about, but the woman working on the ticket desk right next to the check-in counter did and called her. Karin came to pick us up about 15 minutes later.

After dropping our stuff at her nice, large apartment near the city centre she picked up a friend and took us to Naschmarkt – a trendy market and restaurant area that had a Camden Lock feel to it, event though it was completely different – for a pleasant, if late lunch. Then they left us, as they’d both had late nights and little sleep.

We walked around and took photos of the Karlsplatz and Karlskirche, Stadtpark and the Danube and various statues we passed on the way, like Brahms, Beethoven, Johann Strauss the Elder (or was it the Younger?) and the Johann Strauss the Younger (or was it the Elder?).

We took a free tram ride home as, as with most of the places we’ve visited, public transport works on kind of honour system where it’s up to you to buy a ticket and validate it in a little machine when you get on board. There were no ticket machines around the tram stop and it was late enough that it was unlikely that a ticket inspector would be around.

The following day, we did much the same thing. We didn’t visit Austria’s Versailles, Schönbrunn Palace, but we did walk around the Belvedere Palace gardens (and had a picnic lunch there).

Then we walked up through Schwartzenbergplatz, where, our host had explained the day before, the monument built by the Russians at the end of WWII had been deliberately obscured by a big fountain (because the demolishing the monument would have been too disrespectful). In the same square, there’s a wonderful fractal sculpture that kids (of, as they say, all ages) climb up.

Then it was on to Stephansplatz to look at the Gothic splendour of St Stephen’s Cathedral.

Heading roughly back towards our accommodation, we stopped for a rest in the Burggarten, walked around Heldenplatz, through the Volksgarten and to the highly impressive Rathaus, the city hall.

Then back past the slightly incongruous classical Parliament building, through Maria-Theresienplatz, which is flanked by two grand museums, past the MuseumsQuartier and back to Naschmarkt, where we bought a load of olives, humus and similar delicacies. The curry humus lasted us several days.

In the morning, we said goodbye to Karin and headed back the Westbahnhof railway station and on to Salzburg.

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Early on Friday evening, Botond picked us up from Lauren’s place in Bratislava and drove us to Hungary (possibly via Austria); once again, all the border checkpoints were deserted. The drive took a total of about three hours. Although Budapest was our main interest in Hungary, we were actually going to stay in Bo’s hometown of Gödöllő. However, on the drive there, we stopped in Budapest to visit a bar and meet some of Bo’s friends.

The bar was one of a popular breed of watering holes in Budapest – ruin bars. These places are in old buildings – Victorian, maybe – that haven’t been taken care of too well. Some of the walls are missing swathes of plaster, revealing the brick and stone underneath. One place we visited the following day – Instant (in Hungarian, pronounced more like Inshtont) – was decorated in surreal fashion with a herd of rabbits flying through the air and an old photograph of a family including a boy with a caulliflower head.

After grabbing something to eat at a nearby Turkish kebab place and coming back to the bar for a beer and chat, we headed off to Gödöllő. We stayed at the flat of Botond’s brother – who we never got to meet (he was staying in Budapest with his girlfriend) – but first we dropped in for dinner with Bo’s mum and her boyfriend. They didn’t really speak any English, but they were very friendly nonetheless. The food was great – chicken stew and meat wrapped in sauerkraut.

The next day, Saturday, Bo picked us up once again and took us to the Royal Palace in Gödöllő. He told us that, as a youth, he’d failed a test to become a tour guide there. This fact belies his skill as a guide, as he was full of information about every place he took us to. We picked up a friend of Bo’s and headed to Budapest – specifically, to Pest. The city is divided by the Danube into Buda and Pest, which were originally two separate settlements. Pest has all the bars and shops and the parliament; Buda has the castle and expensive homes.

Our first stop in Pest was the parliament building, where Botond had reserved a place on a tour for the four of us. The building is a very impressive place. It’s a neo-Gothic building, like the Houses of Parliament, but where the Palace of Westminster has Big Ben and Victoria Tower, the Hungarian Parliament has a dome. The interior is decorated with lots of gold and statuary and the crown jewels are housed under the dome. These latter had been smuggled to the USA in a barrel of oil at the end of the war to protect them from the Soviets.

Afterwards, we went to the nearby riverside and saw a monument to Jewish people who were killed there. The monument consisted of lots of bronze shoes at the edge of the promenade.

After that we went up to the dome of the city’s biggest church, St Stephen’s Basilica. It was pretty windy, but it afforded some great views of the city. When we got down and went to go inside, we were put off by a clergyman collecting ‘donations’. The fee for going up to the roof was, I think, 500 forint – less than 2 euros; a tiny fraction of the entrance fee to London’s equivalent church, St Paul’s Cathedral. Still, we’re cheapskates on a budget, so we didn’t go into the church.

Later, we saw the almost as massive Jewish synagogue. We met other friend’s of Bo’s for dinner – I had gulash. We went for a drink at another bar and saw a kind of flashmob dance performance there.

On Sunday, Bo took us back to Pest and showed us round a palace that he described as a mash-up of lots of other buildings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearby was Heroes’ Square, a large open space flanked by two art museums and dominated by statues of important figures from Hungarian history, including the tribal leaders who settled in Hungary long ago and Saint Stephen, Stephen I, the first king of Hungary.

After that we went over to Gellért Hill and looked at the monument there, the Liberty Statue.

Then we walked over to the Buda Castle area, had a picnic just outside the walls, then went in and took pictures from the plaza by the palace that looks over the Danube. From there it was a very short walk to the president’s house (a white building). There was a small camp of hippyish left wing protesters outside. Their protest was that it had recently come out that President Pál Schmitt had copied his PhD thesis. Bo taught us how to say ‘Pack up, Pál Schmitt’ in Hungarian. The next day, he resigned.

We walked along further and found another beautiful church looking out over the river between two fairy tale castle parapets that are now cafés.

We walked down the hill and went to a Bohemian little tea shop. I had a Bounty tea – it contained coconut and chocolate; Habiba had a ginger tea. Then it was back to Gödöllő for dinner. In the morning, our faithful guide and driver, Botond dropped us at the railway station and we caught a train to Vienna – our first journey using our Eurail pass.

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