“The fact that this one is called the ‘Great’ Wall of China annoys me. I’ll decide if it’s great or not. It might end up being the ‘All Right Wall of China’ to me.” – Karl Pilkington.

So in this instalment of ‘Things Christy did Over a Year Ago’, I will be relaying the tale of when I cast away the shackles of European society and headed east, into the sensuous Orient. It was all very exciting and I felt a bit like Marco Polo – or it would have been and I would have, had it not been for the 10 hour layover in Moscow airport, where I was forbidden to leave the building. A little less Marco, a little more Tom Hanks in The Terminal. Obviously I did what I imagine anyone being incarcerated against their will does, and immediately established myself as airport Kingpin by commandeering what appeared to be the only working electrical outlet in the building. And here I sat for hours, Kindle-ing and Facebook-ing and silently lording my prime airport real estate, over the Russian people, like a proud, moustachioed Tsar. My delusions of grandeur were shattered, however, when I had to get up to pee, or to refuel at T.G.I Friday’s, and found that no one cared to claim my precious outlet as their own.
After about 9 hours, I decided it was probably a good idea to find my boarding gate, so I stood up and looked around and found that it didn’t appear to exist. After some blank stares and miscommunications with airport staff, I ascertained that my gate was in an entirely different terminal that I didn’t know existed. So thus began another Home Alone-esque dash through the airport and into a whole other building, miles away. Time was as short as my, again, inappropriate for the occasion, shorts. My flip flops were torn off and I ran barefoot across the dusty granite floor, like an unreasonably well-nourished POW escapee. Despite the urgency of my airport sprint, the fact that this building was much nicer than the one I had been needlessly squatting in, was not lost on me. Subways, and Costa Coffees and vending machines that appeared to dispense tins of biscuits flashed by me whilst I lamented my stupidity in staying in the shameful Terminal D with its measly T.G.I Friday’s and its limited Duty Free. I arrived at the gate just in time for an anti-climactic queue to board. I discovered that I had ended up being on the Terminal D of flights when I ended up on quite a rickety plane, with indecipherable notices that appeared to tell me that I’m not allowed to bring boomboxes or cars on the plane, and what appeared to be a blatant disregard and expression of contempt towards my anticipative request for a vegetarian meal. This was all wrapped up nicely when the elderly Chinese man sitting next to me, felt the need to lean over my lap to look out the window every five minutes, and sit in my seat, put my earphones in and unpause my in-flight film, whilst I popped off to the bathroom. But, whatever. Only 8 hours until I reached Beijing.

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I feel like my first authentic Chinese experience was on the subway that I caught from the airport. It was a bit like going through a carwash without a car: moist and constricting. There appeared to be more people in my subway car than there was at the last concert I was at. I debarked, gasping for air, only to find that in Beijing there isn’t any air. I found that I was standing directly in front of Tiananmen Square, except I was unable to see it through the smog. I looked around and saw that everyone who passed me was wearing surgical masks, and this seemed like a bad a sign. Several people were also wearing t-shirts with English logos that I presume the wearer didn’t understand. This is only an assumption though. The little girl I saw may well have been perfectly aware that her t-shirt said ‘Who’s Your Daddy?” Another thing I noticed was how Western the immediate area looked. It was a large built up area with loads of shops and fast food restaurants. It seemed to be a good location to have a hostel. As it turned out, my hostel appeared a few turns later, in a dark alleyway with crickets frying at the side of the dirt road and parents holding their defecating babies over potholes. I personally think I fitted in quite well – or as well as an oddly tall, ghostly pale Northern-Irish girl could in the backstreets of Beijing. In fact, that evening I ended up walking into what I thought was a restaurant, to find that I was the guest star of a nice Chinese family’s dinner party. They gave me what I can only describe as cold salt strips, which I attempted to eat with chopsticks (which I had never used before) and a pint-glass of miscellaneous black liquor. This was an impossible situation to get out of as I didn’t want to appear rude and because none of them spoke a word of English except for the six year old girl. Sadly she wasn’t the most conversationally stimulating of characters and mostly just asked me if I liked dogs.
A couple of day later, I decided to take a day trip to The Great Wall of China. I signed up for a 6 hour hike around what was described as an ancient part of the wall which hadn’t been renovated and had very few tourists. This turned out to be false advertisement and equated to a two hour dander around the main part of the wall. There were in fact no other tourists but this was only because it was a horrible rainy day and you couldn’t see any of the wall because of a thick screen of fog/smog. All of my pictures ended up being of the area two feet in front of me. I maybe should have bought a post card of my desired photo, where I could see the wall winding around idyllic countryside for miles, and tried to pass it off as my own. My tour group were obviously upset that we had been mislead about the contents of the tour, but every time we brought it up with the tour guide he would loudly start belting out what sounded like angry religious chants. It was either this, or some sort of technique designed to scare invading Mongols away. He wasn’t a bad singer. He was maybe on par with the performers of the Peking Opera that I went to see the next night, whose costumes and high-pitched singing actually proved to be wildly entertaining. I had no idea what was going on but I think I was, much to my surprise, laughing with them and not at them.

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A highlight of Beijing for me was my trip to The Forbidden City. This is probably because a great deal of my knowledge of China beforehand had come from Disney’s Mulan and I was excited to see some talking dragons. The Forbidden City lays North of Tiananmen Square, which I was excited to see for its historical and cultural significance. It was obviously an essential tourist destination, but I spent little time there as it was sort of a one photo and then I’ve seen it all kind of a deal. I was also really anxious to get to The Forbidden City. There was just so much to take in, and accompanied by an audio-guide, I spent an entire day walking around the grounds and learning things I didn’t even know I would find interesting about China’s past dynasties. I loved the names of all the different parts of the city, for example The Gate of Heavenly Purity or The Hall of Supreme Harmony. I especially loved the pillars and the statues, throughout the palace, that have luckily survived Manchu, Japanese and Communist invasions. Even some of the former treasure is displayed in the Treasure Gallery part of the Palace Museum, having been smuggled out during the Second World War and returned after. My favourite part of the city was the Imperial Garden. It seemed like a scene out of an Ang Lee film, and was only slightly spoiled by the three billion tourists packed into it. The day definitely left a lasting impression and even sparked an interest in concubine culture that I still enjoy reading about.

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The history nerd in me loved The Forbidden City, but it was the animal lover in me that drove me to Beijing Zoo. There was no way I was going to go all the way to China and not see a panda. That would be insane. Despite this overwhelming urge to see a panda, I was also very nervous about what kind of conditions the animals would be living in. They turned out to be better than what I was expecting but not up to a great standard. The panda house seemed to be the most relatively spacious and well-maintained, which isn’t surprising since it is their main attraction and costs an extra 5 RMB to see. The pandas were obviously extremely adorable but I was just as excited to see some rhinos and hippos, which they don’t have at Belfast zoo. I also saw a racoon! I wasn’t sure they even really existed outside American cartoons. That was probably a highlight of my life. The zoo itself was massive and I even got lost in it and seemingly found my way to the ‘rough’ part of the zoo where there were questionable looking characters selling corn on the cob by the path and signs forbidding people from ‘pole vaulting’. Maybe this was a problem within the zoo and they were constantly getting people vaulting into the cages and escaping on a tiger.

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Overall, despite the crazy cultural differences, and some of my feelings about the rest of China that I visited afterwards, Beijing remains a city that I would visit again. I’ll maybe come more prepared next time, with a gas mask and a stick for enforcing personal space.

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Things I Learned in Beijing

1) Air isn’t a basic human right. They don’t have to give it to you if they don’t want to.

2) Jay-Z is a skilled linguist. His song ‘Jigga my Nigga’ turned out to be the only Mandarin I needed to know. ‘Sooo zhe ge’ (pronounced jigga) in Mandarin means ‘this’ and ‘nhe ge’ (pronounced nigga) means ‘that’. You can understand my confusion when I first found myself in Chinese company…

3) Jackie Chan has moved down in the world.

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4)Sometimes people will spit in your general direction. It just happens.

5) How to kind of, sort of use chopsticks. The Chinese seem to hold them in a way that seems overly complicated to me but I was happy just to get food from point A to point B.

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“I am leaving the town to the invaders: increasingly numerous, mediocre, dirty, badly behaved, shameless tourists.” – Brigitte Bardot

So I went to Poland. Krakow to be specific. And you know what? It wasn’t all grey and depressing, as I’d pictured, at all! Well Auschwitz was, but that’s to be expected… Also, unsurprisingly, UKIP were mistaken. Not all the Polish people are over here taking our jobs. No sir. I saw loads of them!

My expedition into Poland began as all of my expeditions begin- with a ridiculously long train journey that left me traumatised and ready for bed. So you can imagine my dismay when I finally exited the train and found myself in an absolute labyrinth of a shopping centre. It had an actual butterfly house in the middle of it. The only thing that was missing was David Bowie in a dress. Having arrived by train I also didn’t know what level I was on. I wasn’t sure if I needed to go upstairs or downstairs to get to the exit, so I ended up wandering around for forty minutes taking escalators at random until I reached fresh air. I then had to walk through a subway, which also seemed to be a small shopping centre. I think Krakowiaks maybe have some sort of shopping compulsion. They also have a dragon! I like dragons… Technically it isn’t a real dragon, it’s a statue of a dragon that breathes fire when you text it, but in this day and age surely being reachable through social technology is the only prerequisite for being alive?

On one of my first days in Krakow I went on a tour of the socialist district of Nowa Huta. I booked it with a tour company called Crazy Guides, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they collected me in what can only be described as a commie hippy death trap. It was an old plastic Trabant car from the 50’s that had a flower power design painted on it. We were taken to Nowa Huta, shown an old fashion milk bar, the town square where statues of Lenin and the like had been erected, the Steel Works where the majority of the town’s inhabitants had worked during soviet rule, and finally we visited a 1970’s communist apartment and watched a propaganda movie which was ridiculously cool. It was a really interesting tour that had a slightly odd vibe which can be attributed to the fact that they made you take a different flavoured vodka shot at every stopping point. Seemed like an unorthodox way to do a tour, but I suppose that when in Poland… get steaming in the afternoon and be a communist?

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About half way through my week in Krakow my mother managed to track me down and came for a visit, causing me to backslide into full Belfast and probably insured that we’re forbidden to enter the great Republic of Poland ever again.

On her first day there we went on a tour of Krakow’s Jewish quarter. About three minutes into the tour we lost our tour group, ran about looking for them for a bit, conceded that we’d lost them forever and decided to go get an ice-cream. Luckily we accidentally ran into the group again and thus began our three hour trek around the Jewish quarter. It was very engaging. We learned the sad history of the Jews in Krakow, saw things like graveyards, some locations used in Schindler’s List and some synagogues. By the time we reached the site where the Jewish Ghetto had been, my mother and I had let our irresponsible footwear choices get the better off us and collapsed on what we thought were benches, to listen to the tour guide tell us about the Ghettos and how Roman Polanski had escaped. The talk was, however, paused to tell us that we were sitting on the ghetto memorial. We sheepishly slid onto the floor where I immediately cut my toe open (thanks to the aforementioned irresponsible footwear choice: flip-flops) and spent the rest of the tour, which ended at Oskar Schindler’s factory, bleeding profusely.

During the tour we had been told that Nowy Square was the place to be for Jewish bars and restaurants, so we decided to head there for dinner that night. Of course we couldn’t find it, despite having been there earlier that day. When we eventually did find it, we, as culturally oblivious tourists, were disappointed to find that nowhere seemed to have truly kosher food and there weren’t Rabbi’s wearing yamakas and playing traditional Hebrew music in the corner of every bar. So several cocktails later we decided to head to an Irish bar the centre of town. It took us a while to get there, because the taxi driver, with no explanation offered, made us get out of the taxi a couple of miles away from our destination. We had some disappointing Guinness and went back to the hotel. It was a good night but the problem was the next day was Auschwitz day…

I for one woke up feeling pretty fresh, my mother on the other hand was feeling slightly under the weather. I, in a genius feat of forethought and daughterly philanthropy, packed a plastic bag in case she, er, needed it. We grabbed a quick coffee and were off, morbidly looking forward to seeing some death camps. Surprisingly the bus ride wasn’t a cheerful scene out of Summer Holiday. In my excitement to see a gas chamber, I forgot to take my travel sickness medicine and this, paired with the in-bus entertainment (a documentary about Josef Mengele chopping up babies), triggered an upchuck reaction of Exorcist proportions, none of which reached the plastic bag. I was covered, the seat was covered, the floor was covered, my mum was covered and the two hipsters in the seats in front of me were covered. I suppose this was considered poor form because I spent the rest of the journey being glared at by tourists holding their noses.

We reached rainy Auschwitz, and obviously I was inappropriately dressed, so with no shame left in us we shook the vomit off, got some waterproof ponchos/ bin bags, and ate some sandwiches in front of the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign. I still can’t decide if this was unintentionally poetic or deeply, deeply disrespectful. I suspect the latter.

The rest of the tour was mournful and distressing in a way that I suppose only a place of mass genocide can be. It may be strange to say, but I really admired the structure of the museum and tour. By this, I mean that I felt that it displayed a great deal of subtlety, while being peppered with truly shocking images (a room full of human hair for example). I feel that the atmosphere stretched all the way through Auschwitz and Birkenau, and left a real lasting impression. No details, no matter how harrowing, were spared, and because of this the museum stands as not only a memorial of the millions of people who lost their lives there, but as a reminder of the potentiality of human evil.

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I would recommend that anyone visiting Krakow visit Auschwitz, although perhaps without me as I’m sure I wouldn’t be allowed back. After my shameful entrance, my slightly too loud exclamation that some of the shoes taken from the Jews are nice enough to wear now, and my mother and I getting lost looking for a toilet at Birkenau and holding up the tour bus ( that was already covered in my vomit) for half an hour, we slinked back on to the bus and sat in a puddle of my vomit, in the knowledge that everyone on the bus was going back to their respective countries and telling the tale of the Belfast girls who ruined an otherwise lovely day at a death camp.

The tour, grim as it was, was a tick off the bucket list, and for that reason, a great way to end my time in Poland. My mum caught a plane home, and I went to catch a plane heading east. This marked the end of my time in Europe and the beginning of my new adventures in the Orient, where, surprisingly my mother was still able to track my every movement via the miracle of global positioning.

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Things I Learned in Krakow

1) Off-licenses in Krakow all have a sign that says ‘Alkohole.’ This stands as a friendly beacon as to where one may acquire booze or alternatively as a great insult towards troublesome drunks, for example “Ugh! You spilled vodka on me you alkohole!”.

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2) That people will refuse you things for no reason in Krakow. After being refused a bottle of water at the super-market, tickets to a museum and to be taxied to the actual place I wanted to go, I resigned that Krakowiaks just enjoy the word ‘no’.

 

3)Hitler was a bit horrible wasn’t he?

 

4) The meaning of pain. I nearly ripped my baby toe off on a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter. Nothing brings history alive like listening to a guy talk about jewish ghettos while you slowly bleed to death on a genocide memorial.

 

5) Soviet-controlled Poland had their own version of the Beatles that hid anti-communist messages in their songs.

 

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“Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.” – Truman Capote in ‘In Cold Blood’

So throughout my travels, people were constantly telling me not to spend too much time in Prague; that there wasn’t a lot to do there. I sort of took this on board. I had been looking forward to Prague, but I had loved Vienna so much that I didn’t mind cutting out some Prague time for the chance to stay there longer. As it turned out one day was enough in Prague, but in that one day I managed to fit in a hell of a lot, including a rather ill-favoured incident that I still can’t quite wrap my head around.

 
See one of the weird things about the Czech Republic is that all the signs are in Czech. Outrageous, I know. Before departing for my trip, being the responsible and well- organised person that I obviously am, I printed out pages with all my train times, train change-over’s and all that jazz. It would have been an easy endeavour except the journey between Vienna and Prague ended up having, and I’m not one for hyperbole, roughly around 50 Billion change-over’s. So here I am, boarding a train on my way to visit the Artist Formerly Known as Czechoslovakia, with what was essentially a medium sized novel filled with a load of Czech place names that I couldn’t say.

 
Okay, I think it’s time to come clean. Earlier I lied about being responsible and well-organised, so naturally I ended up boarding the wrong train. The problem was that I didn’t realise this until after I had already gone four hours in the wrong direction. There ended up being this whole rigmarole around the inspector trying to tell me that I was on the wrong train, without the use of English, and me trying to tell him that I didn’t understand, without the use of Czech. Well I think that’s what he was saying. He could have just as easily been trying to engage me in some weird Strangers on a Train scheme. Eventually, with the help of a very kind translator, I was forced to disembark the train in the middle the Czech boondocks. I am serious. I was in essence stranded beside what I’m pretty sure was the garage that they always stop off at, at the beginning of horror movies. I looked around at the toothless, indigenous people, half expecting them to spit out tobacco and tell me I have a purdy mouth. Obviously they wouldn’t say that because they spoke Czech, but whatever. At this point I was sitting on dirt road thinking about whether it was better to wander off into the extensive coniferous forest that surrounded the road to die, or to create a new life as a Slavic garage attendant/ The Hills Have Eyes extra. I had no Wi-Fi and, having just been at only Euro-using countries, no Koruna. I was up hovno creek without a paddle until eventually a kindly stranger (who had nearly all of her teeth) asked me if I needed help and set me back on course. Before I knew it (nine hours later) I was in the cobbled city of Prague. By this time it was night and it became perfectly apparent that some of Prague was actually kind of dodgy and a bit Skid Row-esque. I figured that, like a midget at a urinal, I better keep on my toes.

 
I checked into the first hostel I found, which ended up being an awesome haunted mansion, and left immediately to do some late-night sightseeing in the less dodgy side of town. Within a couple of hours I had already crossed everything off of my list and went on a Ghost Tour. It was obviously very touristic but I had a lot of fun. The tour guide was dressed up in an executioners costume and told us the gory history of the city. My favourite story was that of the man who built the Astronomical clock. Legend has it that the town elders blinded the clockmaker so that he could never reproduce the clock for another city, and as revenge he hurled himself into the clock’s mechanism, killing him and ensuring that the clock was broken for over fifty years. I’m pretty sure the clockmaker was still about causing mischief when I visited the clock because when it struck midnight, the apostle figurines that were supposed to come out of it had gone mysteriously AWOL. At the end of the tour we were taken underground to a dungeon where we were asked to choose our method of execution. I chose being eaten to death by rats because I was kind of hoping that they would bring out a nice rat for me to pet, but no dice.

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The next morning I wandered around the old town and saw all the churches and the Vltava River. It was a nice walk but I was pretty indifferent about leaving Prague. It’s definitely a cool city, especially if you’re into all things spooky. However, like a stick of Juicy Fruit chewing gum; it didn’t leave a lasting impression.

 

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Things I Learned in the Czech Republic

1) You can get ridiculously good beer in Prague. A lot of it is similar to Guinness.

2) Czech people in the middle-ages had deep, deep anger issues. They just really enjoyed going about flaying and stabbing people. I suppose they didn’t have the behaviour meds that we have today, but still…chill the bap guys.

3) We are not alone. My hostel was in an old, converted gothic mansion, and I definitely heard some weird sounds coming from the hallways. Moaning and chain rattling sort of sounds. The hostel manager probably just thought it would be hilarious to pop a few speakers about the place, making ghost noises and scaring tourists…

4) Not all buskers are there to annoy you. The buskers in Prague all seem to be accomplished classical musicians who busk because – I don’t know – everyone in Prague is a musician and it’s a competitive career choice?

5) There is such a thing as absinthe ice-cream. Decided to give that one a miss…

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“I see nothing in space as promising as the view from a Ferris wheel.” – E.B White

So boys and girls, I will now delve into the chapter in my travel saga that I like to call The Country That I Won’t Shut Up About. Yes, there’s been one place that I’ve been advocating over and over since my return. Austria eh? Who knew? Well Mozart presumably…and you know…Hitler.

I began my Austrian adventure in a good mood. I was sick of Italy, sick of bugs, sick of pizza, sick of traffic, sick of men on mopeds and sick of heat, so naturally I was excited to enter a country where the hills are alive with the sound of music rather than the sound of blaring car horns. And it was a rainy day!!! I was so excited to see the rain for the first time in weeks. From the first breath of ridiculously fresh air, I was in love with Austria. I could almost feel a shift in atmosphere as I crossed the border. The feeling I got in Austria was the feeling I felt I had missed out on in Germany because I had only visited Berlin. I want to describe it as an almost Bavarian feeling. Y’know, Lederhosen and yodelling and the like. That is probably an extremely culturally insensitive thing to say, but it’s the only way I can think of to describe it. I don’t know if this had something to do with the scenery in general, which was absolutely amazing. I think that I spent most of my time on the train convinced that the entire landscape was painted on as some sort of elaborate scheme dreamt up by Wile E. Coyote. Then my mind was blown when the train actually went through one of the Alps. Through the Alp. I was literally inside an Alp.Woah.

My first stop off in Austria was in Salzburg. I stayed there for two days. I cannot stress to you enough how this was not enough time. Salzburg is now my favourite place on earth. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that your time spent in Salzburg is spent in a standard town (granted a very quaint one) but with the added fact that there is a frigging Alp directly behind it. Just a wee casual Alp poking up from behind there, capriciously brindled with castles. You know. Standard.

When I first arrived in Salzburg I decided to have a wander around the old town which was categorically cool. The buildings all have a sort of baroque style to them. They really push the whole ‘Mozart’s birthplace’ thing, so there are dozens of music shops and places selling 18th Century style clothes. Also, like Berlin, there are quite a few Veggie food places about the place which obviously made me happy. That day I ended up in a Veggie burger joint sitting with an old man who told me about his divorce. He was nice but I could see how his wife left him as his mouth sort of looked like a box of broken Tic-Tacs. That night I went to an Irish bar with a group of locals and a few Australians. This particular bar had an ‘Irish drink free night’ that happened to be on while I was there, so that’s another point for Austria. The night ended with me pretending to be Seth Rogan’s agent to Chinese and American tourists because one of the Australian men (who looked extremely like Seth Rogan) was signing autographs for them.

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The next morning I visited the Salzburg Salt Mines. I remember it being fun and actually quite interesting. The tour guide looked like a poster boy for Hitler Youth and didn’t speak a word of English. We had translators so we knew what he was talking about but mine broke half way through the tour so I resigned to looking enthusiastic and looking at the pretty rocks. Afterwards I visited Berchtesgaden, which was an equally quaint town a little further into the mountains. I had strudel and hot chocolate in the rain and was at peace.

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I was a little sad to leave Salzburg, but I’d heard good things about Vienna so I was also eager to get there. I wasn’t disappointed. Vienna is a beautiful city. The city screams 18th Century. It still feels like Mozart could be chilling in the park thinking up his next big hit. There’s this one part of the city, the stately side that made me feel like I was in a George Eliot novel but then there is also riverside Vienna which made me feel like I was in a Beastie Boys video. This is a contrast that I can get on board with. The area by the Wien has a cool alternative edge to it. There is tonnes of street art, sculpters and make-shift bars. It’s a vibrant area- worth a stroll.

Although my favourite part of Vienna was probably the architecture, I was also really excited about the Prater Park funfair, because I’m secretly a four year old. It was a bit rickety and gave the Craggy Island funfair a run for its money, but I had a lot of fun and ended up going twice. I especially enjoyed the Ferris Wheel and the panoramic view it gave of the city at night.

So after 5 days in Vienna (3 days more than I intended on staying) I begrudgingly bid farewell to Vienna, waved strudel-oo to Austria, and I already can’t wait to return again one day.

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Things I’ve Learned in Austria

1) A hell of a lot about salt at the Salzburg salt mines. I have since forgotten all of it.

2) Most people don’t look as Hitler-Youthy as you would expect.

3) My hunt for the best hot chocolate in the world is over. It can be found outside of Salzburg in Berchtesgaden.

4) Austria and Northern Ireland are pretty similar. Similar weather, similar fashion, similar normal people to shady character ratio…They even have Primark.

5) Austrian people seem to love segways. There’s people scooting about on them everywhere. They’re constantly whizzing past you at a slightly faster pace than walking speed.

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“I’ve never been lost, but I was mighty turned around for three days once.” ― Daniel Boone

So it’s been a while. That’s my bad. I’d like to say something about being so emerged in the thrill of travel that I forgot about the outside world and was lost in a bubble of self-discovery.  I would like to say that, but sadly, the truth is, I got a little behind, and once you get a little behind something else comes up and then you get a lot behind and then it gets really hard to start up again. But fear not, I’m willing to fill you in on what I was up to if you’re still interested? Yes? Okay.

My first hour in Venice was spent in the post-office. Well the first fifteen minutes was spent asking Venetians where the post-office was and the next forty-five minutes was spent waiting for my number to be called in a seemingly empty room. Why was I spending my first moments in Venice in the room where depressed postmen go to die? Well I’ll tell you.  Let me set the scene. Its five hours earlier, I’m at Roma Termini railway station in, funnily enough, Rome.  My train is in two minutes and to my displeasure I can’t find a pen. I need a pen to fill in the details on my inter-rail ticket. Not to worry, I’ll borrow one from the inspector on the train. No dice. The inspector informs me that I have to fill in the ticket before I board the train and my failure to do so means that I have to pay a 50€ fine.  I try everything to persuade him otherwise. I pretend I don’t understand him (lies), I tell him I didn’t know that that was the rule (the truth), and as a last act of desperation, and this I’m not proud of, I turn on the water-works.  Again, no dice. I’m left scowling and wiping up fake tears, holding a ticket for a 50€ fine (to be paid immediately at the nearest post-office) and being handed tissues by a couple of concerned looking nuns who were returning from their holiday to the Vatican. 

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Needless to say I was a tad livid when I first got to Venice. Luckily it’s a city that is difficult to stay mad at. When you come out of the train station you are confronted with what is probably the most modern looking part of Venice, which is still nice. I spent my first full day in Venice looking around this area, the area surrounding the main canal. It was a fairly uneventful day. I saw some churches, some masquerades shops and it was a rather nice day.  It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I felt like I had experienced the Venice that I had come to see.  This was actually a bit of a surprise considering that the Venice I had come to see was 16th Century Venice, and I thought this may be an unreasonable request.

There were a few things on my list that I wanted to see in Venice, besides the general canal stuff.  The things I wanted to see the most were Saint Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), Basilica San Marco, Doge’s Palace, and the Rialto Bridge.  This should have been easy enough, seeing as these attractions are all quite close to each other. Unfortunately the campsite that I was staying in was half an hour out of the city, in the middle of nowhere and subsequently their wifi connection was a tad lacking. As a product of a generation addicted to technology, obviously I found it impossible to navigate the historic city of Venice without a screen-print off of Google maps.  I don’t know how people did it in the middle ages. Maybe they bought a map off one of the street-vendors but bizarrely they only seemed to sell plastic masquerade masks and Richard Attenborough-style straw fedoras. So instead I decided to take the flâneur approach and just walk over a load of bridges and wander through random alleyways. Believe it or not this worked out well. I had a great day. I had the best pizza in the world. I wandered streets were little seems to have changed in hundreds of years. I even stumbled upon all the sights that I wanted to see in the first place, my favourite of which was the Rialto Bridge which overlooked the Grand Canal. It was a little crowded but it offered a fantastic view and was surrounded by cool shops and market stalls. I went into some art galleries and looked at the art for a bit, judging it entirely on whether or not it looked nice. A perk of travelling alone is that you don’t have to get caught up in a game of chicken when it comes to appreciating art. You don’t want to be left standing in front of a canvas with a squiggly line drawn on it, for twenty minutes, when clearly no member of the party could care less.  So yeah, it was almost the perfect day.  Almost.  About  four hours in, it dawned on me that I was totally and utterly lost. As it turns out, taking a haphazard approach to directions becomes problematic when you don’t remember to take a mental-note of which route you took.  By this point my feet are beginning to hurt and I’m starting to be bothered by the mid-summer, Italian heat. I walked down a side street and ended up beside a large canal. Success! Oh wait. No. I need to be on the complete opposite side of the canal. I can see the exact place that I want to be from where I’m standing.  The trouble is the only way across appears to be by water-bus. Get the water-bus you say? Well apparently I can’t because you can only buy tickets on the other side of the canal. Arg! It’s so frustrating. It’s so close I can touch it. I could easily swim it, if it wasn’t socially unacceptable and if the water wasn’t teeming with speedboats waiting to decapitate me.  So alas, I conceded to going back the way I came. I suppose this worked out eventually. I ended up making it back to the campsite…four hours later.  I now realise that the most tragic thing is that I didn’t once take a gondola ride while in Venice.  But on the upside…Damn was that pizza good.

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Things I’ve Learned in Venice.

1) There is somewhere on this earth with more insects than Rome.

2) There is no such thing as a middle aged Italian person. Everyone is either under 25 or over 65.

3) There is such a thing as Pizza flavoured Gelato.

4) There are a billion masquerade shops, with no sign of any actual masquerade balls.

5) Chips count as a pizza topping in Venice.

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