Monday, June 20, 2016

High speed travels across Europe

It's 10.30 in the morning and I am in the Finnish archipelago, somewhere between Turku and Stockholm. The ship I'm on is kind of like the Interislander (times four). It's huge! There are multiple restaurants and cafes, a huge duty free shop, slot and other gambling machines everywhere, several viewing decks, and my idol - a fashionable blonde lady sitting out on the deck drinking a glass of white wine.

The intense-travelling phase of my journey began when I hauled a broken suitcase, a 50L backpack, a 32L backpack, and a handbag to the airport in Madrid, boarded a plane to Paris and set off from there.

A while before I left (and before I knew I'd be returning to NZ earlier than I imagined), I booked a flight from Prague to Helsinki and decided I would slowly and meticulously waltz my way across to Prague from Paris, stopping to enjoy the sights at a slow, leisurely pace.

But things don't always go to plan - so now I have been trying to pack as much in as I can. It's been exhausting, exhilarating and exciting to travel at such a fast pace. It's also made me look forward to a time a few years down the track when I hopefully will have another opportunity to travel and to see more of each country I visit. I never really wanted travel to feel like a matter of 'ticking all the boxes' but at the same time, those boxes are there because they are one hundred and fifty per cent worth ticking. There are some amazing places out there and there's a reason why they are so popular. As I haphazardly reserve overnight busses, day buses, ferries and the odd plane, and find my way to stations in unknown cities with my trusty and cheap backpack, I wonder how much more lost I would be without offline maps on my phone.

The trip so far
Paris (four nights) --> overnight bus to Amsterdam --> Amsterdam, staying at a friend's house in Deventer then visiting Wagingen and Utrecht the next day --> overnight bussing from Utrecht to Munich --> couchsurfing in Munich, then travelling by bus to Vienna --> staying in a great hostel in Vienna, spending a day there then travelling by bus to Budapest --> two nights and one full day in Budapest, then and eight hour bus to Prague --> two nights in Prague (one full day) then a flight to Helsinki --> three nights in Helsinki, bus to Turku and one night in Turku

I wrote a post about Paris, so watch this space.

The Netherlands
I'd heard so many people rave about Amsterdam. Unfortunately, getting about three hours sleep on my favourite method of transport ever (cheers overnight bus and loud passenger who didn't realise that at 2am in the morning most passengers in fact do not want to listen to your music), I looked through the city with glazed over and red eyes, but not for the same reason that most other tourists in Amsterdam have glazed over and red eyes for.

Cliches were all there, bicycles, canals, flowers, narrow houses (because of taxes) and the odour of freshly smoked weed. One thing to be careful of - cyclists! It's not hard though, if you look both ways twice and stick to the specially marked pedestrian footpaths and not the specially marked cycle lanes.

The street art was also super funky, and my quirky tour guide spend a while explaining about the different kinds of street artists (apparently one of the most famous ones is a primary school kid who puts a picture of a cute strawberry up everywhere). After spending the day touristing around Amsterdam, I collected my beloved fourty-euro backpack from the luggage storage in the train station and hopped on board a train to Deventer, a village where my friend lived.

This was where I got my first taste of a real Dutch snack - a croquette. A mixture of mince and potato, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. The cool thing about these snacks is that you get them out of rows of mini ovens, which you can open once you've put in enough coin. This is just one example of how quirky yet functional the Dutch are. Vending machines in walls selling hot fried snacks. Amazing and so practical.

The friends who I stayed with lived the outskirts of a small village, where her parents run an organic farm. Despite being in the acclaimed city of Amsterdam, I also loved finally getting a taste of country air. We walked around the farm with the dog and saw where the lettuces grew, the greenhouse for the tomatoes, the irrigation and the tractor. Country lyf. You might think it weird that I enjoyed it so much, but the opportunity to see a friend again, stay with a friend and her family, eat homemade food and pick up freshly milled flour from a windmill isn't the kind of experience an everyday tourist gets, and I loved it.

The next year day we dropped by her cute university down nearby, then I trained to Utrecht and spent a few hours wandering round there before taking the bus to Munich. Utrecht looked quite similar to Amsterdam, but lacked the thousands of tourists that Amsterdam had. Instead, the people on bikes were those who genuinely lived there, the cafes and restaurants didn't have menus printed in English and in Dutch, there wasn't a smattering of weed smoke drifting in the air and the shops weren't selling just tourist paraphernalia. I'd recommend visiting Utrecht if you're in the Netherlands, for a s'more genuine Dutch experience. It was a funny experience ordering food in a fast food place there - I apologetically said to the cashier that I didn't speak Dutch (and like all the other Dutch people I met, he was super friendly and spoke excellent English). But I sat down with my receipt and waited for my food, before realising they were calling out numbers. In Dutch. So I waited a bit then went back to the same nice cashier and asked if my number had already been called, and he kindly said that he would bring it to me when it was ready so I didn't have to listen for a number in a foreign language.

Overnight bus number #2 was later that evening, to Munich.

Tired and sore, I disembarked the bus from Utrecht at about 9am and had the whole day to explore before meeting with my couchsurfing host. Luckily the weather was nice (it was only raining a little bit.)

So what does one do when they only have a day in Munich? Obviously coffee. I researched a decent cafe and followed a map (to moderate success) to find it. This was after having a speed shower at the public bathrooms in the train station, which were amazing. Constantly being cleaned, bright, lots of space and mirrors for make up and also power sockets. But by speed shower, I mean not a proper shower because I was too stingy to pay seven euros for one, instead I had a packed of baby wipes in my handbag. Useful. But not as refreshing as a proper shower.

Munich, like Amsterdam, was a city that breathes efficiency and order. I loved coming across the cute little design shops and flowers coming down the walls. The width ofthe streets surprised me after Paris and Madrid. I was in a bit of a daze from lack of sleep and the ratio of sitting in a cafe drinking coffee versus going out and sightseeing was probably weighted the wrong way.

Anyway, after thoroughly enjoying my coffee and my me time, I wandered around the city, checking out the palace gardens and was surprised by the vast expanse of the park, where hundreds and hundreds of people were enjoying the afternoon sun by picnicking, playing soccer and volleyball and having a few drinks. In one part of the palace gardens, there was a man standing in a belvedere playing music on glass jars filled with water.

Part of the next day I spent doing a 'free' walking tour, with who I thought was a genuine German tour guide - chubby, blonde, red cheeks and smiling. Turns out he was from Dallas, Texas, but was one of the best tour guide I'd had. Unlike other free walking tours, he knew the perfect amount of time to talk for (ie, did not give a 20 minute complex history lesson in every place we stopped at but instead injected humour and sass into his accounts of the history and the places). Unfortunately I wasn't so lucky with the weather there, and it was cold and drizzly. What a start to a European summer. Oh well. The raincoat that I nearly forgot to pack was well and truly getting it's money's worth.

From Munich, it was on to Vienna. I'll leave that out because I wrote a whole post on it in a bus to Budapest (I think?)

Well, Budapest. Probably the craziest and weirdest part of the trip so far, and also the place I regret spending so little time there. It was my first taste of Eastern Europe and that was something you could notice as soon as you stepped of the bus. What does one want as soon as they step off a bus? Food? The shops in the bus station were full of unfamiliar yet delicious looking cakes, pastries, tarts and types of bread. And if I wanted to pay for it, it was time to rip out the Hungarian Forint - not Euros. (Despite the fact Hungary is in the EU).

On the road to Budapest the bus I was in was overtaken by dozens and dozens of Porsche going at about 200km an hour. It was utterly ridiculous - and the bus driver seemed to be scared of them because every time one overtook us he would suddenly swerve.

The first night in Budapest was one of those nights worthy of the name 'Accidental Big Night' - ie when you think you'll be back early enough to get a decent amount of rest before the next day, but things happen and next thing you know it's 4am.

I arrived at around 9pm, found my way to the hostel by bus and tram, had a shower and decided to get some food then head out to the hostel where everyone else goes to have a few drinks. I got lost.

At 10pm I was still wandering around the area, alone and hungry in Hungary, wanting something that wasn't a kebab. I finally got something to eat, and it wasn't a kebab. It was a Mexican wrap.

Then I found the hostel everyone else was at  and some friends I met in Vienna, bought one beer (which was why I didn't expect to be out so late, because it literally was only a one-beer kind of night on my one-beer kind of budget) but we went to a crazy bar/nightclub thing with a glitterboar - yes, not a glitterball but a glitterboar hanging from the ceiling - and then when that part of the club got too hot we went downstairs and found a literal rave cave - a concrete brick encased basement, which was relatively empty, where the DJ's were playing the most intense rave music and there were some dudes there who were literally doing the most insane kind of dancing I have ever seen in my life. And that's how it turned into a 4am kind of morning. Special mention goes to one of the girls I was with. When we went outside to get some fresh air, we noticed metal detectors in the entrance to the club. She thought they were for library books. No no no, they were for metal instruments like knives and guns.

That night being a rather late one, I still got up at a reasonable hour and went for a walk down to the station, about to explore, when it started absolutely pissing down with rain. I can't even begin to describe how heavy this rain was. It stopped people in their tracks. And also trams. And me, one of the reasons being because I was wearing a white tee shirt and had no raincoat with me. That didn't turn out to be a bad thing though - I went back to the hostel in time to sign up for a hop-on-hop-off tour which a rather large number of people from the hostel was suddenly interested in. So we set off, stopping to buy 'water' from the supermarket and jumped on a tour bus to the first destination, where men were doing a strange war dance in front of Heroe's Square. There was also a lake and a castle which was apparently fake. The weather was still pretty foreboding looking, and part of the situation was that not all of the busses we could take this tour actually have roofs.

The best part of the tour wasn't seeing a snail smoking a durry on the path up to citadel, but the amazing view of the city from Citadel flanked by incredibly huge statues. It was impressive and definitely a good idea to take the bus up the hill. Did I mention it was a Monday? Game of Thrones had already been out for a night and a bit. Luckily some others from the hostel were wanting to watch it that evening before heading out. As a group we ventured out into the not-so-rainy Hungarian evening in search of a place we could get some take-away Hungarian food. We stopped outside a restaurant with a sign we couldn't understand (because it was Hungarian) and decided to attempt to communicate that we were after dinner, but wanted take away. Lots of smiles and miming and looking at menus later, I had my goulash in a take away container, they had their ribs and meatballs and mashed potatoes, and we were sitting on a floor in the hostel watching Game of Thrones.

The next morning I got to catch up with a friend who lives in Budapest and we went to a cute cafe a few tram stops down from my hostel. They served a traditional Hungarian treat with our coffee - curd cheese coated with chocolate. It sounds weird, but they are so good! She explained to me what was and I was embarrassed to admit I had already eaten two of them the previous day...

The bus station was also an interesting one. I arrived and confidently walked to what I thought was the platform. It wasns't the platform. I walked to another platform. No. Not the right platform. I tried to figure out if Prague perhaps had a different name in Hungarian, but couldn't figure that one out. Luckily I ran into a guy from the hostel who was looking for a bus to Bratislava but with the same company. He went to the information desk while I looked, who told him that this bus was across the road. Thinking there was a small chance we were on the same bus because we were with the same company leaving at the same time, I also crossed the road and ran into him, two lost Americans (yay, not me being theb only one who was lost!) and some Aussies. But not the bus. We searched high and low, and we still didn't find what we were looking for.

I saw a shed and walked behind it, to the corner of that road an another one. Lo and behold, there was a bright yellow bus with Regio Jet Student Agency written on the side. Here was the bus! Not only was it going to Bratislava, but it was also going to Prague. None of us had any idea what to expect from the bus, but we hopped in and wow. The seats had TV screens! And we got free coffee and tea. Heavenly. And much needed on an eight hour trip. The downside - the toilet didn't work. Not so heavenly on an eight hour bus ride.

I got off the bus and was immediately accosted by a strange Czech dude who didn't give me my personal bubble of space and wanted to change money (I think) but there was no way I was getting my wallet or card out of my bag with a guy who was standing that close to me, so I went to find an ATM elsewhere. Despite that little scare, it didn't feel unsafe there, so Mum please don't worry about me.

Anyway, that little delay proved to be a good thing, because it meant I randomly met some Americans in the train station who didn't have a hostel to go to and led them to where I was staying, where they were fortunate to have enough space for them.

However, you may realise I have an absolutely terrible sense of direction and in Prague for some reason, this was excaberated even more - I can't even use words to describe how lost I got in Prague on an almost constant basis. Before I met the guys, I had actually already gone down to the platform where the train was, then thought I was on the wrong platform, so surfaced again to check if there was any other platform (of course there wasns't).

But wait, there's more. Upon arriving into the city, and following the instructions from the hostel which I had a screenshot of in my phone, we attempted to catch the tram to the hostel. First of all, we caught the tram the wrong way, then caught the wrong tram. Eventually we made it to the hostel.

Then we went out for dinner and got a Czech meal in a quirky restaurant run by a Yugoslavian man. Bread and sausages had never tasted so good - it had been hours and hours since my last meal. We then got ridiculously lost again trying to find the bar via trams and trains, where a friend from Vienna was with some other new peeps from his hostel. We eventually found it, caught up with them, then made our way back to the hostel via tram and Google maps. Also catching the right tram but the wrong way. It was late, and the next day I forced myself to get up and do a walking tour, which I then ditched because the tour guide was giving us a history lesson in each stop and I just couldn't handle the information overload. So I went up the Astronomical clock instead and saw the view.

I genuinly thought Prague was like a fairy tale land. Full of houses and buildings with orange tiled roofs, a castle that looked out over the city and the river. The sun also came out, which was one of the best things that could happen! After checking out the view from the Astronomical Clock, I wandered to a mall to buy a much needed memory stick - and realising how many religions influence Prague. There was an alchemy museum, and so many buildings had starry symbols and signs of the horoscope. There were also several churches and synagogues. If I'd stuck withb the walking tour, I probably could have found out more, but no regrets on leaving it.

I purchased the much needed memory stick in a modern shopping mall (Prague has experienced rapid development in the past twenty years, making it a really cool blend of old buildings and streets but also very modern facilities), I attempted to find my way across the river to the castle. This proved a mission for this very geographically challenged kiwi girl. I was walking around in circles. Thankfully, as soon as I found a bridge across the river, I also found signs that pointed up to the castle, so followed them. I didn't actually end up going in the castle, but looked out from the top of the hill over the city again. Again, another spectacular view but this time with a bright blue sky.

The walk back down the hill back to the hostel led me over Charles Bridge and back (because I wasns't actually supposed to cross the bridge). But at least it was a special bridge. One of the boldest in the city. Since I didn't do the walking tour I can't describe what's so special about it, except for the fact that there were dozens of old statues on each side of the bridge and hundreds of tourists taking pictures from it. Post Charles Bridge, I got lost again trying to find the affamed John Lennon wall.

Although there were tourists there, it was a completely different kettle of fish to the bridge. Shaded by trees and in a quiet side street, there was an amazing busker there playing sixties songs on the guitar while people watched. The wall is an amazing piece of graffiti, with messages of peace and love sprawled all over it in brightly coloured paint, pen, and whatever other medium there is. The other interesting thing about the wall was two older teenage girls, wearing very fancy clothing and high heels, with their hair and make up done, taking literally hundreds of pictures in all kinds of different poses, probably for instagram. They were doing this for a veeeerrryyy long time. The cheeky wall also had wet paint which they also didn't realise for a veery long time.

That was my last afternoon in Prague before I boarded a plane for Helsinki.

I have more blog posts to come, when I get a chance, so please watch this space!

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