World Clock

Friday, 21 November 2008

London - Round 3

Which one did I choose? Turns out, none of them.
For the past 3 weeks the Aussie dollar had been slowly falling against both the sterling and the euro. In fact, on one particular day in Budapest it lost about 1/4 of its value literally overnight. I think this was the main factor behind my decision to not continue travelling and to find myself a job again.
The plan: to find some work until Christmas, have a few weeks off over the festive season to do some travel with Lee, then head into the French alps to work in a chalet for the ski season. The perfect plan in my opinion. That, I figured, would set me up with a good few months worth of French-speaking opportunities and then a good few months more worth of unhindered travel options around Europe for the summer months.
On that final day in Prague I booked myself a Student Agency bus (loving the bus) back through to Victoria Station in London, departing that afternoon. Student Agency are a cheap Prague/Budapest based bus company with a difference. I guess you could say they act a little more like an airline than a bus service. There's the selection of movies, your choice of music stations and there is even complimentary hot chocolate served by a stewardess who's on call for the entire trip, which in this instance took about 5 hours longer than scheduled due to delays on the eurotunnel.
Tom and John were kind enough to take me in again for that transitional period in London. I was not staying for long. I was on my way to Belfast.
My week in London was relatively uneventful apart from buying myself a new laptop to replace the one that I had bought only a month before. At one point I spent 48 hours indoors with the curtains drawn - I figured out that that can be quite depressing only after I stepped outside to do some shopping and realised that there was actually a world out there. I also managed to catch up with Nic and Michael again for a few drinks on one of my last nights (although I'm not sure how good my company would have been due to a self-inflicted absence of sleep the night before.)
The most interesting day by far was the one after I arrived. On Sunday, Tom and I decided to go on a photo excursion of the city. It was something I felt I had neglected to do during my time here last time and so I was more than eager for Tom's suggestion. We took an anti-clockwise tour of central London, using a combination of buses and our legs, in order to find unusual sites where we could make manifest some of our ideas in front of the lens. We managed to get some great shots!
I booked the first half of my trip, to Dublin, on the Friday afternoon and the following morning - about 6am - I was once again on the move. The day was to be another long one on buses, trains and a ferry. During the train journey north towards the port at Holyhead, I had an interesting conversation with a few girls that were born and raised in Dubai. At the same time an announcement came over the intercom system informing us that there was some quite adverse weather conditions over the Irish Sea where my ferry was due to cross. Some of the ferry services had been cancelled. Luckily, mine was not one of them. It was a massive and unexpectedly fancy cargo ferry, and one would think that it would hold such considerable momentum that choppy weather would not affect its crossing all that much. That just didn't hold true. For the majority of the several hour passage the boat was rolling and pitching with quite unsettling amplitude - cupboards were opening and cleaning gear was rolling around the upper deck - and there were a number of audible and jarring collisions with large waves. It was actually a little scary when my stomach started getting that same sensation that you get on a rollercoaster or when your car dips suddenly on an undulating road.
Rocking aside, the trip went by without too much drama (apart from those that threw up in the stairwell) and after passing through customs we were once again on dry land.



Skatepark - Southbank

Funny guy, that Tom

backstreets of Camden

the Antarctic

now they're having to resort to djing

the streets near Buckingham Palace

can you guess that this is an Irish boat?


Praha (or Prague, as we know it) is the capital of the Czech Republic and is described as one of Europe's most beautiful and fascinating cities by most who visit it. I am no exception. Although I have used the term 'grand' in a few instances to describe cities visited in the past, this magnificent metropolis also fits that description perfectly but in a very different sense. While places like Vienna and Lyon feel as if you have stepped back into a time where you could imagine the entire city being built to satisfy the wishes and majestic vision of a king, Praha feels more as if it had been pieced together over the course of centuries, bringing to fruition the visions of hundreds of architects, Catholic nobles and artists alike. Having escaped WWII virtually untouched, the city's architectural diversity is enormous and immediately apparent - from Gothic and Renaissance to Art Nouveau and Cubist - and it all just... works.
The portrayal of Prague as 'The City of a Thousand Spires' paints a very realistic picture of what you can expect to find here. The churches, the enormous and imposing watchtower gateways, the famous Old Town Hall clocktower with its giant astronomical clock and of course the Prague Castle all exhibit some version of this Gothic feature. I don't know why but somehow a spire will always seem to add a certain beauty to a building. In the same way, spacious open squares and wide avenues add a certain greatness to a city, and there are plenty of those in Prague. But what about the narrow, cobblestoned, archaic backstreets that I have come to associate with medieval Europe? Yep, a lot of them too. The city really is magnificent. I think Karlův Most (Charles Bridge) also deserves a mention here as it affords fantastic views of the stunning riverfronts on both sides of its 300-odd-metre span across the Vltava River. The bridge is adorned with 30 sculptures dating from the 18th century, strengthening its allure, and is lined with sketch artists and jewellery stalls to catch the attention of the hordes of tourists constantly passing over it - in summer this bridge is the busiest place in the city.
In the evening of our first real day in the Czech Republic, Dan took us by train to his small, charming and quiet village about 40 minutes out of Prague. His parents were kind enough to let us stay for a couple of nights and mum was trying to feed us before we managed to even step through the door and say their adorable word for hello, ahoj ("ahoy."). When we had finished eating (oh those jam and cream cake things for dessert were divine) Dan took us for a walk to the local pub where we met some more of his mates, Pedro lost a game of pool to me, we watched French music videos, and I ate a most disgusting looking (but beautiful tasting) camembert cheese while two old Slovak men argued in the corner. A pretty normal night.. Until...
At some point in the night before, around 2am if I remember correctly, Pedro's best mate, Sky (a funny guy aside from the events of the ensuing discussion), rocked up and we shared a few beers with him. I think he was the only one out of our bunch to not have slept that night. Well he slept this night, that's for sure........ For one he fell asleep in the pub (a side effect of a little too much alcohol me thinks) and it took a glass of water over his face to wake him up. Then there was the short, yet seemingly eternal walk back to Dan's place. And last but not least by any stretch of the imagination, I had to lay next to one of the strangest, loudest and most irritating sleepers I have ever come across. To top it off there was the unfortunate vomiting episode all over Pedro and Kristina's clothes, acting as a catalyst for a heated (and loud, for 5am) argument between those two. Sufficed to say, I gave up on sleep for that night. Dan was not a very happy either that all this was going on in the room next to his parents'. Oh well.. One for the grandkids..
We spent 2 very relaxed days in that village and again there was a lot of sleeping in past midday (for everyone except me that is). The morning after all that unpleasantness, while everyone else slept, I sat and watched a Czech program on TV that looked like a really old news broadcast. Dan informed me that that was exactly what it was. Every single day they air the news that was broadcast on that date exactly 25 years ago. He explained that it was really interesting because in 1983 they were still part of Czechoslovakia and the news at that time took on a very obvious communist stance. What a great idea! Not the communism, but revisiting the news from the past on a daily basis. Why don't they do something similar back home?
We said our děkuji's to Dan's parents and migrated back into town after this stint in the Czech countryside. We ended up settling for our remaining two days into a hostel situated down a small alley just off the old town square, Staroměstské náměstí, home to the old town hall and towered over by the twin spires of the Týn Church, the latter being conspicuously and spectacularly lit by blue light in the evenings. A bit of partying, a bit of general sightseeing and some eating at the vegetarian restaurant downstairs from the hostel followed until Friday afternoon, when most of us were scheduled to leave - everyone already had their flights booked, except for me.. again.. I couldn't even decide where I wanted to go after Prague:

Berlin? Somewhere else in Germany? Maybe Paris?


In Dan's Village

in the early hours of the morning

Lee, the centre of attention as usual...

the cheese - mmmm

imposing structures

Vltava River

Týn Church

communist art



it doesn't take much to cause a crowd

the astronomical clock

eating some Czech sausage

And a tiring introduction to a new city

Through the early morning fog we walked, crossing the street once to avoid a group of 3 suspicious-looking men. Within 15 minutes we had reached the train station and it was time to once again say goodbye to this lovely city and to brace ourselves for the next unknown.
The majority of the following 2 hour train trip was also shrouded in intermittent fog and it didn't subside even when we had arrived at our next destination city of Linz. Still in Austria, but closer to the Czech border, Linz is not the best place to visit on a Sunday morning - despite its claim to fame as being Hitler's favourite town. We had only a couple of hours here until our connecting train and Sunday morning, then and there, was the only time that was available to us. Don't get me wrong, it seemed like a nice enough place, a really nice place in fact, but it was just dead. Almost no-one on the streets and most of the stores were closed. Despite this, I could still appreciate the city's architectural merits. Although almost completely devoid of greenery and in some places riddled with construction work, the buildings on the central square, Hauptplatz, and main street eminating from it away from the river boast an aesthetically pleasing Vienna-like feel - but on a much smaller scale.
After this short interlude, it was back on the tram to the train station (again nervous about potential ticket inspectors as we were pretty sure we had bought the wrong tickets.) We managed to avoid another fine.
The fog subsided eventually and as the train rolled through green pastures, far-reaching forested areas and small Austrian, then Czech villages, I watched. A long 7 hours and two-thirds of the Czech countryside had duly passed before we arrived - almost 12 hours after setting off from Salzburg. It was dark and we were tired. We were meant to be meeting Pedro, Dan and Kristina (of The Mop fame) at the train station but neither of our phones had credit so there was a period of about an hour of attempting to use public pay phones and asking shop keepers if we could use theirs before I figured out that it's not impossible to top-up my mobile whilst roaming. Then there was a half-hour of waiting in a nearby restaurant for them to turn up. An hour or so later, whilst on our way to a pub, Lee and I decided we were too tired and weren't prepared to lug our bags around anymore, so we would look for a hostel instead - it was about 11pm by this point, which makes looking for a hostel in a brand new city a little taxing, and so after an hour or so of walking around the busy and wide main avenue of Václavské nám and sitting in McDonald's we took the easy option and gave up to meet with the guys again, just in time for a new pub. The fog once more began to fill the streets and the temperature had become that kind of bitter cold we had come to expect of European evenings. It wasn't until about four and a half hours after this, at 4:30am, that our heads had finally hit the pillow in a disused hotel owned by one of Dan's mates. A long day.
The morning came and went and I don't think any of us were up before about midday. The light of the new day again came to the rescue and, although the place at night looked mighty impressive, it certainly looked a lot more friendly that following day. We ventured into town on the underground and for a couple of hours in the afternoon Dan acted as our tour guide, showing us some of the many wonderful sights in his home city.
We were in Prague.


happy snaps in Linz

how European...

they didn't think that name through very well..

already tired on the train

the National Museum at the head of Václavské nám

The Hills are ALIVE

OK, so I don't really know what that means, but it sounds ominous and... familiar... Of course I am talking about the famous song from the movie, "The Sound Of Music". And the best place to watch it every single freaking day is undoubtedly in Salzburg's International Hostel. We stayed there 4 nights. Their continental breakfast was amazing... and cheap!
The last time I was in Salzburg was in the final days of 2005, with my mum and Lee. It was winter. It was cold. And best of all it was white and covered in snow. Absolutely stunning. This city was one of my favourites 3 years ago, and that still hasn't changed. It was the one I was most excited about revisiting on this trip. There's simply a beautiful liveliness in the streets, in the markts, in the colourful 17th-century buildings that sit flush up against the cliff backdrop, in the trams, in the Sacher torte shops, in the prominent medieval Festung Hohensalzburg fortress overlooking the city, in the many painted Christmas egg shops that line the narrow and busy Getreidegasse (they are in full bloom even in mid-October), in the parks, in the river and, yes, even in the hills that encircle this picturesque old town, which has been given Unesco World Heritage status. This time around though the season was Autumn and the surrounding hills were not white, but multi-coloured in greens, yellows, oranges and reds. The weather is clear, the air is crisp and there is a great vibe flowing through it. As you can tell, I like this city.
Of course, the major attraction for most people is the sights and sounds of The Sound Of Music with many of the film's scenes shot right here in Salzburg or very nearby. They are quite recognisable too, provided you brush up with the morning screening of the movie at the hostel. Last time we were here we did the obligatory Sound Of Music tour which did the rounds taking us to said sights - it was pretty cool, but there's something just not right about a busload of people singing "How do you solve a problem like Maria?". There are a multitude of other similar tours here capitalising on this fact, including Freülein Maria's Bicycle Tours...
The other claim to fame this city holds is that it is the birthplace of one Mr. Mozart. There are several museums here dedicated to the man, despite the fact that he decided to leave Salzburg in 1780 at the age of 24, leaving behind a legacy of only his earliest works.
During our time here, we visited a Biofest with all things bio on display and on sale in Kapitelplatz, a square towered over by the fortress above. Primarily bio bread, bio icecream, and of course bio meat were available here, not to mention the large beer tent full of people drinking bio beer (what kind of Austrian festival would it be ohne Bier?). We met a lovely and new-to-travelling young American couple on our second day in the hostel and we spent a good deal of time talking about the differences between our two countries. Always interesting. We made friends and had a long and intense talk about politics in Mexico City with a local mum from the Republic café/bar where we spent a lot of our time. But our time in Salzburg was mainly spent simply meandering from the new town on the north-side of the teal-blue river to the pedestrianised old town on the south and back again, soaking in the vibrant atmosphere of the crowds of tourists and locals alike.
A wonderful, long awaited and much enjoyed experience.


Across the river

the old town with the fortress in the background

the cliffs and autumn colours


that's what I mean by Christmas egg shops. imagine this throughout a whole store, throughout 20 stores..

autumn fun at the bio fest

i want a pair!

recognise this? i'll give you a hint: do re mi


Wednesday, 5 November 2008

grab onto those Pecs

Pécs. Pronounced as if you're saying pear with a ch at the end. A much quieter student city in the south-west of Hungary. I guess you could call it a welcome relief and a pleasant change. Again this was nothing against Budapest, it was really just a state of mind that I was in at the time coupled with the irrational thought that a change of city would bring with it a change of luck. Did it work? Put it this way: nothing bad happened so that was a positive sign! We both had a very positive attitude on the train across the country, watching the unexpectedly green and vast landscapes rush past. That was until I realised I had left my iPod cord back at David's place.. Aaaaargh.. Luckily, I was able to get hold of Aaron and he managed to find it for me. Phew.
As we waited for a bus into the city centre, a dance class in session was visible in the window of a 2nd floor studio outside the train station. We met with our CSer, Simon, who was in the middle of studying for his medical exams at the time, and he asked if we would like to eat some McDonald's for dinner. We declined and instead he took us to eat in a cozy downstairs Hungarian restaurant with live piano music, just off the main square, Széchenyi tér - a much better choice, don't you think?
This main square is dominated by the largest remaining Turkish building in Hungary, a remnant of the country's 150 years of Turkish occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Mecset templom - or Mosque church - seems to be a contradiction in itself. Its name, however, reflects its nature exactly. This lovely domed building was once a mosque, serving the city's Muslim community until it was converted into a Christian church; the Islamic moon symbol atop the dome replaced by a cross. Another interesting feature within the city is the padlock fences. Small sections of fence that couples connect a padlock to in order to signify their love. I thought that was cool. We were treated to something a little different on that first morning. Simon took us to his university to sit in on a German medical practical on the human brain. And they were using real human brains! Now that's not something you get to experience everyday - looking at a human brain while not understanding a thing the German lecturer is saying (apart from an occasional reference to the hippocampus) in a university in the south of Hungary.
There was some sort of arts festival on while we were here as well and as part of it there were beanbags laid out in one of the small central squares and a giant screen set up showing what I could only imagine was a Hungarian animated children's show. Again, we couldn't understand a thing but it was funny all the same.

Our time in Pécs was short and not paricularly jam-packed but definitely enjoyed all the same. We left the next day on another train which was to take us back through Budapest (where we met again with Aaron and he was able to give me the iPod cord) and Vienna in order to get to our next destination. We were excited for this one!


just one of those lovely skies you can't resist photographing

one of the padlock fences
the largest unoccupied building in Europe - damn asbestos


that's an impenetrable fortress of security she's got set up there

the Mecset templom


We spent the majority of the day with Henry and in the evening we moved out of the city on the 173-RED bus towards Erd (don't take the normal 173 bus as it takes you somewhere completely different as we discovered...), a gypsy village about 45 minutes out, to meet up with our CSer, David. This was definitely an interesting experience, and he is definitely an interesting fellow.. He has a Mongolian yurt. In his front yard. A real yurt, complete with fireplace, which we slept in. He lived in Mongolia for a while as a yak herder and liked the yurts so much that he had one sent over. He then decided to leave his "stable" yak herding career to become a beggar for 6 months in India, simply because "society needs beggars." I still haven't quite figured out in my head whether or not that statement is completely accurate. David's only job now is climbing mountains and he informed us on that first night over a glass of wine that we probably wouldn't see him for a couple of days as he was leaving early the next morning hitch-hiking to Austria to climb a mountain. He has attempted Mt. Everest a few times and his next goal is to reach the peak without supplementary oxygen. As I said, an interesting fellow.
So he left the next morning as planned and left us the keys to his house - trusting guy. The only thing that he asked of us was that we read through "the document", a list of things required to keep the household running, and to make sure the cats were fed. Done. We spent the next few days at David's house, chilling out in the yurt and trying not to get ourselves into a state where the idea of being back home in Australia sounded like a real possibility. I was feeling very much that way because of my newfound lack of trust in people, as was Lee. We even got to the point where we were checking prices of flights...

Well, sufficed to say, we didn't come home as is pretty evident to those of you in Adelaide. We instead got to spend some quality time with Aaron, a Hungarian-born-Kiwi friend of David's that came to stay with us in the yurt. He was really knowledgeable on political issues and historical facts about Hungary and shared a lot of this with us, not to mention his thoughts on Emo music and the cure for cancer that the government is withholding from us.


said yurt

there was some cool stuff in there

one of the cats attacking Lee while Aaron cooks dinner in the background