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Having failed, or rather given up, on our previous attempt to go to the Vatican Museums, we tried again on Friday the 4th of May, also known as Star Wars Day, also known as my birthday. We had a better experience this time. The queue was a lot shorter and moved more quickly.

As we passed into the lobby/ticket area, we had to go through a security check. Habiba, in typically pushy American fashion, got ahead in the line and through the check before I did. Despite the fact that there were dozens of people wandering around inside with backpacks of a similar size to mine, the guard told me I needed to go straight to the cloak room to check it in. He wouldn’t let me go and tell Habiba without leaving my bag by the X-ray machine.

We bought tickets and hired audioguides – each which required further queueing – and then we queued up to get inside and join the crowds of people slowly making their way through the museums. The layout of the place is a little strange: while there are lots of different ‘museums’ within the whole complex, each with its own distinct collection of artefacts and artworks, you don’t have much choice about what you visit. As a whole, the Vatican Museums are designed to be visited linearly; instead of going to Museum C, Museum F, Museum M or whatever, you mostly have to go from A to B to C and so on. The path branches in a few places, and there were several museums we didn’t get to – the coin and stamp collection being a notable omission.

We did, however, see various Egyptian relics, numerous Classical statues, a sprinkling of modern art, lots of frescoed chambers and – of course – the Sistine Chapel.

One of the other highlights was the Hall of Maps. This was a long room like a vast corridor; on one side were maps showing regions in the west of Italy, the maps on the other side showing the east of the peninsula. What I found really spectacular about this room was the ceiling. It was arched and decorated all along its great length with painted panels of various sizes divided by baroque frames and sculpted figures and designs.

The Sistine Chapel was packed with people, many in tour groups, standing around ogling the walls and ceiling, talking and taking pictures despite the attendants (who, I think, were mostly clerics) telling everyone to be quiet and the signs that prohibited photography. It’s certainly a sight to behold, but Michelangelo’s figures are a bit strange – they’re often overly muscular and tiny-headed, and the women have a pair of ugly lumps in the middle of their chest that are supposed to be breasts.

We were glad that we saw the place, but we were also glad to get out. It’s a huge place and no single visit can really do justice to it – and the crowds make it nearly impossible to enjoy. It’s also, understandably, quite dark in most areas, so it’s difficult to get good pictures. Once we escaped the mêlée, we had lunch at a touristy, but not too expensive restaurant across the road from the entrance. The queue for the Museums had diminished to practically nothing – which was a little annoying, especially given our experience a couple of days before. We cheered ourselves up with more ice cream from the Old Bridge Gelateria.

After that, we headed round the corner to St Peter’s Square and lined up for the Basilica. Unsurprisingly, this was probably the grandest and most ornate of the many beautiful churches we’ve been to on the trip.

And after that, we went for a walk along the Tiber, which is contained in a kind of manmade gorge, with wide paths on either side at river level. Looking down from road level we spotted an animal swimming about by the near bank. We went down for a closer look and found it to be a large rodent with a head and front teeth like a beaver, but a tail like an otter – I later decided it was a coypu. Habiba tried feeding it some of our food, but it wasn’t interested, although it was happy to climb up on to the foot of the wall right below us.

We walked along for a bit then headed back up to road level, through Piazza del Popolo and up Pincian Hill near Villa Borghese before heading back to Anne’s. For the previous couple of nights, Anne’s son had been away at a camp and she had taken in an extra couple of Couchsurfers, a pleasant pair of Dutch women. Dinners in the small kitchen were a cosy affair. They were gone by the time we got back.

And, the next day, we left Anne, got the tram back to Termini, took a very cheap (€4) bus to Fiumicino Airport (officially, Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport) and checked in for our flight to Gatwick. Up until getting to the airport, everything was mostly OK. I’d started feeling sick earlier in the day; I felt well enough to eat some lunch before going through the security check, but after, while we were waiting to board I threw it all back up again. I felt very nauseous on the flight and an attendant gave me sickbags – but I just rested and ended up not needing them.

In addition to all this, Habiba hadn’t realised that she would be able to have more than one check-in bag and one carry-on bag, so she had to pay extra for her third bag. It wasn’t the most auspicious start to a flight, but we got to the UK safely enough in the end.

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Arriving in Rome at around lunchtime, we had a bit of trek to our next Couchsurfing host, but, with some good directions, we had little trouble getting the tram out to the suburbs and finding Anne’s place. Anne lived with her young son and was another great host.

She had experience working as a tour guide and she mapped out a route for us that would take us to some of the sights in central Rome. So, later in the day, we went back and wandered by the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St Ignatius’s Church, the parliament building, the Pantheon (unfortunately, this was closed for Labour Day – and we forgot to go back another time) and the Piazza Navona. The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain were especially crowded – possibly more than usual because of the holiday, possibly not.

We went to a gelato place that was recommended by our guidebook – it was expensive, but I had a coupon for a free fancy ice cream from Habiba. We went to a restaurant for dinner on the same basis, but we didn’t manage to get in. When we reached the front of the queue, we were pointed to a small table next to the door that we would have to share with another couple. Perhaps naively, we said we wanted our own table. The man on the door proceeded to pretty much ignore us the rest of the time we were there. We went elsewhere.

We walked back to the main railway station, Termini thinking that we could get the tram back to Anne’s. A couple of trams came to the stop, but evidently they were terminating, as they didn’t pick any passengers up and the stop was blocked off by barriers. We walked to the next stop and found an area with people waiting for taxis and police and paramedics hanging around presumably waiting for situations involving drunken Romans. We weren’t confident enough to claim a taxi for ourselves and we realised that, it being a holiday, we wouldn’t be able to get a bus or tram after eleven o’clock. We decided to walk – which took about an hour, although it wasn’t hard to know where to go because we just followed the tram tracks.

The next day, we decided we would go to the Vatican. By the time we got to St Peter’s Square it was already afternoon and there was a massive queue for the Basilica that arced all the way around the square. We went round the corner towards the Vatican Museums – and found a similarly massive line. We waited for a bit then decided to give it up. We got ice creams from a place nearby, Old Bridge Gelateria. The cheapest cone was half the price of the tiny cup we had the day before (ie, €1.50) and they served a generous dollop of ice cream on top of it – even giving you two flavours.

After the sweet had stuff revived our spirits, we went to the Coliseum. The queue here was also substantial, although most of it was inside, so it looked deceptively short from the outside. Once we finally got into the amphitheatre, it proved pretty spectacular – it wasn’t bad from the outside, actually.

We did a couple of circumnavigations of it – one at a lower, one at an upper level. Then we set out for the nearby ruins of the Forum. The queue here was much shorter and we should have gone here first because you get one ticket for both the Forum and the Coliseum. We did see everything there was to see within the grounds of what is effectively a huge park, but most of what we did see was very pleasant – though not as breathtaking as the Coliseum.

The day after that, we took the train down to Naples – using our last day of travel with our Eurail pass. The train we wanted to take was cancelled (‘soppresso’), so we got there later than we intended. From the main station in Naples we took a local train – the Circumvesuviana – to the ruins of Pompeii. Here, we spent a couple of hours wandering round the ruined town. We didn’t get audioguides or even a map, so our visit was pretty aimless and, as there are almost no information boards anywhere within the grounds, we didn’t really learn that much. The most interesting part of the ruins was the villa near the exit, the Villa of the Mysteries, with its preserved frescos

We went back to Naples and headed for a pizzeria called Il Piazzaiolo del Presidente. Naples is, apparently, the home of pizza, and this particular restaurant is one of the most famous; Heston Blumenthal went there for tips on the perfect Margherita. The pizzas were good – and cheap, according to the menu. Two pizzas and two beers nonetheless managed to cost us €20.

The restaurant was in a part of town full of tall old buildings separated by narrow streets. Cars and mopeds sped down the streets, weaving through the pedestrians clustered by the shops. The shops were pretty touristy, selling fancy pasta and the usual range of souvenirs. The area reminded me a little of Paharganj in Delhi; although it was paved and much, much cleaner it had a similar grungy, bustling feel to it.

We spent some time walking around, down to the ferry port and the Castel Nuovo, to a big square, the Piazza del Plebiscito where the army was holding some sort of recruitment event, then round the corner to a Victorian shopping mall called the Galleria Umberto I. In the centre of this cathedral-like space there was a ring of zodiac mosaics on the floor. Even though I have nothing but contempt for horoscopes, I wanted to get a shot of the Taurus mosaic, but two women were standing on it for about five minutes taking pictures of each other. Habiba finally barged them out of the way and pretended to have her picture taken by me.

We then headed to the Duomo, or Naples Cathedral, another in a long line of beautiful churches. Habiba sat at the back while I explored and took pictures. After that, we went back to the station and got the train back to Rome.

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The train to Paris was fast – it only took 80 minutes, just about long enough for us to get settled in and watch the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones. At Gare du Nord, we waited about half an hour in line to buy some tickets for the Metro then made our way down to the home of our next host.

Pierre was the latest in a growing line of great hosts. As soon as we arrived, he treated us to a lunch of salad and home-made pizza. He was a friendly, gentle guy with a great collection of fantasy and sf, lots of Japanese stuff and board games including both English and French versions of A Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica.

We didn’t do much for the rest of the day – except in the evening, when we went to meet Habiba’s friend from university, Andy. He turned out to be a sweet, talkative guy with a flamboyant dress sense; he told us a lot about the art world. We had dinner at a small, pub-ish restaurant; they had burgers; I had one of the French meals Pierre had recommended earlier (he didn’t have too many recommendations as he prefers Asian cuisine): duck confit with potatoes. It was very tasty – salty and crispy round the edges.

The following day, Pierre took us on a walking tour of Paris. We started at a Roman amphitheatre, went on to the Panthéon, where various personages from French history are interred, through Luxembourg Gardens, site of the French Senate, on to Notre Dame, stopping for lunch at another small restaurant (I had poached eggs in chive sauce for a starter and steak for my main course; Habiba had a prawn salad and lamb kebab; Pierre outdid us by having bone marrow on toast and steak tartare (ie, raw minced beef, which he mixed with a raw egg yolk and and various condiments)).

After lunch we went into Notre Dame, visited the nearby Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, had fancy ice cream, walked along the Seine a little way, passing Pont Neuf, into the Louvre courtyard – site of the famous glass pyramid – into the nearest part of the Tuileries, the long park in line with the Champs Elysées – the Arc de Triomphe was visible in the distance – by the Palais Garnier – the opera house – to the Moulin Rouge theatre and the nearby area of sex shops, and to Montmartre, where we went into the Church of St Pierre (no relation; Pierre explained that the name – Pierre, or Peter – was related to the fact that the church was on a hill, St Peter being the ‘rock’, the name thus related to words like petrify) and finally to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

This latter is fantastically beautiful inside, especially above the altar, where there’s an enormous gold and blue mosaic of Jesus. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone – there were even plenty of flashes going off. I got told off by an African woman after I took my last shot.

The following day, Habiba and I went to the Arc de Triomphe, walked down the Champs Elysées and finally reached the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line for some time – not that long: we elected to go up the stairs to the deuxiemme étage rather than take the ascenseur. At the second level, we took the other lift up to the top. From there the view was pretty breathtaking. It’s astonishing to think that a building over a hundred years old still dominates the skyline in central Paris. The city lay low and flat below us; the only rivals to the tower were Sacré-Coeur on its hill and the business district way off in the distance.

On the way down, I was possibly nearly pickpocketed by a little boy with his female relatives – they looked to be Roma. He was darting about in the crowd, probably just playing, but at one point he had his hands on my back pockets. When we were down and out we realised that Habiba was going to be late for her eight o’clock date with Andy – she got there late, but successfully hooked up with him.

I headed back to Pierre’s where I met a couple of his friends, Bertrand and Agnes (pronounced ‘Ann-yes’) – the latter of whom bore more than a passing resemblance to Angelina Jolie – and we played A Game of Thrones late into the night. The game proved to be like a smaller scale but more complicated version of Risk.

On our final day, we didn’t do too much sightseeing; I had promised to go to the Louvre, but going to bed at about 3 am argued against it. We did have a little dinner party in the evening with both Pierre and Andy, though. The following day, we headed to the not-too-distant Gare de Lyon to embark on a very long journey to Venice.

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In the Belgian capital, we Couchsurfed with a Heidi, a woman of about our age. Arriving in the city and making our way around, it seemed like most people were French-speakers – Walloons. Heidi and her friends were Flemish-speakers, though – Flemish being Belgian Dutch.

Heidi was very sweet and turned out to be a great host. On the evening we arrived, she and her friend, Wim, took us to a birthday party. It was nice enough and everyone spoke English, though parties are not my thing and I find parties where I don’t know anyone pretty alienating. It was also very smoky and I was a little shocked that many people were smoking inside with three young children around.

The next morning, Heidi took us around Brussels. We went first to a nice park near her home then took the tram to the city centre. She showed us some of the cartoon artwork that adorn random walls and demonstrate Belgians’ pride in the work of the likes of Hergé.

We went to see the Mannekin Pis, about which there are various stories to explain its existence. That day he was wearing a blazer, trousers and a boater.

Next, we had a look at the Grand Place, a square bounded by various beautiful buildings including the elaborately Gothic and statue-festooned City Hall.

Later, we had dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, Kokob. It was the first time I’d had Ethiopian cuisine and it was good, if a bit messy. The pancakey injera bread with which you scoop up the food was very filling. Afterwards, we did a little more walking around, stopping by the Palace of Justice to take a few photos of the skyline.

The following day, we were on our own. We didn’t get out of the house very early, but I suggested going to the Atomium. I didn’t figure out a good way of getting there, so it took us a while; we took one tram, realised we couldn’t get into the park nearby, walked a while and took another tram. Habiba didn’t enjoy the process much.

The weather was not great, either, so walking around Osseghem Park was only a moderate pleasure. The Atomium itself is an imposing sf-esque structure that I found fascinating to look at. It’s like no other building and it’s great to walk around it and see how its profile changes. Standing under the spheres around the edge and looking up is also quite fun. If you look closely enough, you can also see your reflection in the metallic balls – although only as an aluminiumy smear. We didn’t go inside – which I now slightly regret.

The next day, we did some earnest sightseeing in the city. We got up early and headed to the flea market for a walk around. Then we went to MIM, the Musical Instrument Museum. When you go in, you’re given a set of headphones that you plug into various boxes around the museum; each is related to a particular display and you can listen to music made by the instrument you’re looking at. First impressions weren’t that great as many of the boxes didn’t seem to work well on the lowest floor. Further up the building, the sound quality was better.

The bottom floor was dedicated to machines that make music – from old player pianos and music boxes to early electronic instruments. The next floor had traditional instruments from cultures around the world. Further up were historical instruments from Western classical tradition; there were lots of harpsichord-like pianos, many elaborately decorated or painted with scenes from mythology and so on.

Afterwards, we had chips/French fries – a Belgian specialty – for lunch, checked out the Mannekin Pis again – this time he was nude – and went to St Michael and St Gudula’s Cathedral. This was a typically Gothic edifice; however, it differed from many other similar places we’ve visited by being quite bright and not at all crowded inside. It was less adorned than others; there was a series of modern fiery paintings of the Crucifixion. The brightness might be explained by the fact that we were experiencing one of our few sunny spells of our trip to Brussels. There were steps down to a basement level where some of the ruins of the original structure were on display. It cost a euro to go down, with an honesty box for the money; I paid when I came back up, having decided it was worth it.

Next, we went on a walk, the route for which was on a map Heidi got for us. We passed an area where everything had been painted yellow (or maybe bright green – it’s hard for me to tell) and three similarly coloured cars lay wheelless and full of plants. We passed through a couple of parks – Brussels has more than its far share of green spaces, apparently – went by the European Commission in the pouring rain, dropped into a supermarket to escape the weather and buy teabags and toothpaste, walked through the Parc du Cinquantenaire, which contains its own Arc de Triomphe and a big road that runs right underneath, surfacing for no particular purpose in the middle of the park, then on past the European Parliament and back towards the tramline home via the park between the Royal Palace and the Belgian Parliament.

That evening Heidi had a dinner party with ourselves and three other guests. We ate some very tasty Belgian fare that she prepared, along with the some leftover stew of Habiba’s from the previous night. In the morning Heidi accompanied us part of the way to Gare Midi. We said our goodbyes to another great host and started on the journey to Paris.

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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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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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